Staffed Up is a monthly series examining school staffing best practices and solutions for teacher recruitment and retention. Catch up on other installments here.
At Pittsburgh Public Schools, families are often denied early childhood spots because their income is too high to meet requirements under the grants that fund the programs.
“There are a lot of families that we turn away that are not necessarily wealthy families, but cannot afford high-quality child care,” said Kim Joseph, executive director of the district’s Early Childhood Education Department.
That’s why Joseph said she would love to have a universal preschool program.
On the flip side, it gives Joseph “slight heart palpitations” when she thinks about staffing such a program.
“Even being where we’re located, I am not sure that there would be enough staff to staff all the classrooms appropriately,” Joseph said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools is not alone in this issue. While the district mainly struggles to hire paraprofessionals and teaching assistants for its early childhood programs, the concerns over staffing to meet the overall community need are shared nationally.
During the pandemic, the child care sector lost 80,000 jobs or about 7.5% of its workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These employees are typically paid the lowest wages in the country despite their critical skills to help young children’s development, HHS said.
On top of that, more young children are back in preschool as enrollment numbers begin to rebound from pandemic declines, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Preschool enrollment rose 13% with 180,668 more children in state-supported preschool programs in the 2021-22 school year than the year before.
Universal preschool is also gaining steam with six states and the District of Columbia currently offering preschool to all 4-year-olds. Four more states — California, Colorado, Hawaii and New Mexico — have passed laws in the last year to provide universal preschool programming.
As enrollment continues on the upswing and universal preschool gains momentum, staffing continues to be a challenge. Even so, early childhood education experts share four approaches to improve recruitment and retention for preschool teachers and staff.
Expand paraprofessional development opportunities
North Kansas City Schools Early Education Center in Missouri has seen significant challenges with retaining staff, particularly paraprofessionals, said Courtney Bishop, the center’s principal. The center was established in 2021 and serves 1,160 children ages 3-5. Half of those children have disabilities, according to Bishop.
“In our field, we have to have certain ratios, so we have some classrooms with two adults and 20 students,” Bishop said of general education classrooms. “We have other classrooms where we need a higher ratio of adults because of the significance of those children’s needs.”
Paraprofessionals are also “hungry” for professional development opportunities, she said. “They want to know more tricks of the trade. They want to be better equipped to handle behaviors.”
In Bishop’s district, classroom teachers get professional development opportunities through a summer academy where they are paid an hourly rate to take courses to improve their skills. Paraprofessionals, however, don’t have access to these resources, she said.
“It makes you wonder, could it be a win-win situation if paras did have access to those types of things that would then potentially offset the lack of equitable pay?” Bishop asked. Such opportunities could also allow them to deepen their skills and potentially advance to the next level of their career, she said.
Improve compensation, benefits
Conversations also need to happen at the district level about improving paraprofessionals’ pay at early education centers, Bishop said. Their pay should be competitive and truly reflect the recognition paraprofessionals deserve in their daily work, she added.
Classroom teachers easily earn double, if not triple, in wages compared to paraprofessionals at North Kansas City School’s Early Education Center, Bishop said. “The level of time and energy that they [paraprofessionals] are putting in here, it doesn’t really match up with what they’re bringing home.”
At Growing Room Child Development Centers, which runs early childhood programs in Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and Alabama, staff compensation has been increased and the centers offer an employee assistance program, said CEO Brittany Haines. Within that program, staff can anonymously reach out to counselors at no cost to them, she said.
Employees have increasingly taken advantage of that program since the pandemic, according to Haines. “It is definitely being utilized regularly,” she said.
Additionally, Haines said that employees receive free life insurance, a 401K, health insurance and up to a 75% discount for childcare services at their centers.
Focus on culture
While compensation is always going to be at the forefront of conversations about recruitment and retention, Haines said, good work culture is another important factor.
Improving work culture can sometimes be the hardest approach to nail down. But when done well, staff are more likely to stay because they have friends at their job in addition to enjoying and feeling appreciated where they work, Haines said.
This can ultimately lead to staff working harder, and the quality of their work will improve too, she said.
“I’m a firm believer that your culture has to be right to retain your staff and provide the quality of care that they deserve,” Haines said.
Tap into colleges, parents
Throughout the year, Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Education Department has been looking to fill teacher assistant positions, Joseph said.
Often, the district turns to local universities to get college students working in their classrooms, according to Joseph. The district has also partnered with community colleges offering practicum hours to students interested in working as teacher assistants.
For Joseph, these collaborations with higher education institutions are key, and they can even provide opportunities for discounted tuition at certain colleges for early education staff members working for a school district.
Parents are another resource to tap into when looking to hire teacher assistants, she said. This year alone, the district hired four to five parents as teacher assistants, Joseph added. To recruit parents, she suggests communicating these opportunities via social media, monthly newsletters or sending informational flyers home in children's backpacks.
“That can work out well in many cases,” Joseph said. “Parents also know the developmental appropriateness of what kids are into at that age, because they have a kiddo of their own.”