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CDC provides excellent childcare

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tonnette Thompson
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
On the playground, "Ms. Helen" calmly helps a toddler decide which ball he wants to play with - no easy feat, since the boy is sobbing, jumping up and down, and wailing "Nooo!" to every ball she offers, but still demanding a ball nonetheless.

In the preschoolers' room, "Ms. Cheryl" praises her "helpers" as a boy and girl dive their rubber gloved-hands into a child's sink of lukewarm soapy water, pull out a scrub brush and a plastic toy skillet, and practice washing dishes.

And in the babies' room, "Ms. Sarah" gives a young storyteller her rapt attention as he cheerfully delivers a five-minute monologue, composed entirely of high squeaks, blowing raspberries, and the syllables "Ah-guh."

This is a normal day, or even a normal moment, of events at the Child Development Center. Run by civilians extensively trained in childcare techniques, military personnel can leave their pre-kindergarten children in an environment geared toward learning, considerate of parental involvement, and is both accredited and respected by some of the highest childcare associations in the United States.

Though all that's needed for initial hiring at the CDC is a high school diploma and a willingness to work, continued employment hinges on training in areas that go beyond the average off-base childcare facility. First, every employee right down to the janitors are subjected to background checks. Second, every caregiver, from those doing reception work at the front desk to those who prepare the children's meals in the cafeteria, have to go through a barrage of Air Force training modules to qualify. The modules demand in-depth study of subjects off-base childcare facilities might only touch on, such as: guidance, self-esteem, professionalism, and perhaps most importantly, learning to recognize signs of child abuse.

"It's the only Air Force requirement for employment here," said Elsie Scruggs, assistant director for the CDC. "City agencies don't require college credits, or the same level of in-house training, mostly due to lack of funds and resources."

From there, the caregivers spend time working with each age group: one wing of the center is for the infants and all toddlers under age 3, the other wing for all children ages 3-5 years.

"We have to know all aspects of every class, in case we're needed to fill in for someone, anywhere," said Noreen Jerkins, a child development program assistant. "They try to put us in our comfort zones, with the age group we're good with, but we have to be ready to care for any child in this building, whether a diaper needs changing or someone skins their knee on the playground."

The employees at the front desk also wear many hats. Karen Farnsworth, a program clerk, may call each room for hourly accountability checks, inform a parent of their status on the enrollment waiting list over the phone, observe the view from the security cameras placed in every room and throughout the facility, update the vaccination alerts and allergy sheets, collect dues from the parents ... all in the course of one day.

Meanwhile, the directors juggle schedules so the same caregivers can remain in the same rooms (to give the children a sense of continuity,) counsel the staff and oversee preparation for inspections. But just as often, one might see a director wiping spit-up from a baby's face, helping a toddler tie her shoe, or feeling a preschooler's forehead for a fever.

"Everyone really has to be a jack of all trades around here," Ms. Scruggs said.

The rooms are filled with bright colors, books and toys for each age group. The infants have toys that encourage motor skills by lighting up when touched, and mirrors to help them learn their own faces. The toddlers are entertained with puppets representing different races and nationalities, and fabrics from different parts of the world to touch.

The older children have a floor mat, each section tagged with each child's name, and an assignment to find their spot on the mat by recognizing their name. There are even computers that offer an array of math and spelling games.

"We try to see them not as children, but as little people," said Evelyn Holmes, director of the CDC. "They each have their own individual needs, and the whole reason we're here is to fulfill them, and to make sure the parents can go to work without worrying."

Speaking of parents, the CDC also tries to accommodate them as well. Though security is tight, with cameras, sign-in sheets and detailed procedures to determine which outsiders are allowed near the children, parents are encouraged to visit anytime they wish.

One of the most popular CDC programs, Give Parents a Break, allows parents to drop their children off at the CDC after-hours and stay as late as 11 p.m., while they take some time for themselves. The program is geared toward those with deployed spouses and single parents, but for a small fee, it is open to everyone.

Every CDC in the Air Force is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the largest national, voluntary and professionally sponsored accreditation system, and the nation's largest organization for early childhood educators. The NAEYC demands years of internal self-studies and positive NAEYC reviews focusing on children's physical, social, emotional and intellectual development, and ongoing training for the staff, to renew accreditation.

"NAEYC is expected at the end of July to evaluate us for re-accreditation, and under a new, more stringent set of criteria," said Mary Henderson, youth training and curriculum specialist.

"Just to give you an idea, there are four categories: children, teachers, partnership and administration. Under those categories are 10 standards that range from assessment of children's programs to leadership and management, and under those standards are 421 different criteria for us to meet. And I do believe we will pass with flying colors," she proclaimed confidently.

By working to meet NAEYC compliance, the CDC's standards for safety, health and development are so high and well maintained that the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies in a recent study offered the Department of Defense high praise, indeed.

From the NACCRRA published report: "NACCRRA found that the (DoD) child care system stands alone as a model for states. The (DoD) child care system ranked number one on the top 10 list of states with the best child care center standards and number one on the top 10 list of states with the best oversight practices. Other than DoD, no state appears on both top 10 lists."

"I'm not surprised," said Ms. Scruggs, beaming with pride. "These people are a very good example of what we, as childcare providers, should do. We do top-notch work here."

The day winds down, and eventually the parents begin filing in to collect their young. One parent, clad in PT gear and walking with the weary gait common after a workout, is forced to pick up the pace to stay alongside his skipping daughter.

A few minutes later a sergeant laughs as her baby, who hasn't spit up all day, suddenly unloads on her blues shirt, and observes that at least she doesn't have to return to work.
Both parents are reminded of the upcoming Provider Appreciation Week from May 7-11, and encouraged to donate a potluck dish for the staff's party that Thursday.

With the CDC making every effort to meet the highest standards of care, it's the least they deserve.