Low salaries could be barrier to universal pre-K

Christopher Rouse makes $20,000 a year at Western Learning Center in South Philadelphia, where his boss calls him a "treasure." Until earlier this month, he lived in a shelter because he couldn't afford rent.

The 4- and 5-year olds who greet Christopher Rouse each morning don't put much money into his wallet, but teaching them is important enough that the 28-year-old chose to sleep in a homeless shelter for more than a month to make ends meet.

"They make me feel valuable, elated," said Rouse, who this month received rental assistance to move into an apartment. "I'm happy when I wake up every day to go and roll around on the floor and get paint on my face."

As Mayor Kenney presses his quest for universal pre-K in Philadelphia, committed teachers such as Rouse represent both the hope and hurdle for whatever plan might ultimately be achieved.

While Rouse's devotion to his students is admirable, the minimal monetary rewards the job offers stand as an impediment to finding and keeping qualified pre-K teachers.

Rouse makes $10.40 an hour working as an assistant teacher Monday to Friday at Western Learning Center, a high-quality provider in South Philadelphia where his boss calls him a "treasure," and the kids call him "Mr. Chris." Rouse's $20,000-a-year salary represents the average in the field. At night, he attends classes needed for a teaching degree.

The city will need about 300 more certified teachers to handle the influx of children Kenney is proposing to enroll in pre-K.

The school district runs some pre-K classes, and others are offered through private centers or neighborhood providers.

"We've got to ramp up, not just the qualifications but the compensation," said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. "The average person is making $10 an hour. You can't build a quality system on that."

Kenney's plan would give $8,500 a child to high-quality providers. Because those providers would be getting city money they would be required to pay the city's official "living wage." In May 2014, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order setting the living wage at $11.94.

"These need to be family-sustaining jobs - $12 an hour is a base, it's really not where we want folks to be," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, a pre-K supporter who is still mulling Kenney's plan. "People can't make $12 an hour and then pay for school to get a degree."

That latter point is important.

Research has shown that the quality of the education is directly correlated with training and the credentials of the teachers in the room.

In fact, the state sets mandatory minimum teacher credentials to meet their definition of "quality," measured by the Keystone Stars system.

Anne Gemmell, Kenney's director of pre-kindergarten, recognizes that the pay scale is an obstacle. "We're committed to getting to $15 an hour. We just know it's going to take time for providers to ramp up, on all aspects of this plan, including wages," Gemmell said.

Sharon Neilson runs West Philadelphia-based Woodland Academy, which serves 94 pre-kindergartners in the city.

In addition to running the four-star center, Neilson also teaches a pre-kindergarten class. The class receives money from the state's Pre-K Counts program, which requires a certified teacher at the helm. Neilson is the only one on staff.

She has looked for more accredited staff but many teachers with degrees go teach in the district, where salaries are $10,000 higher.

"We're in direct competition with the school district and the school district has a lot more resources than child care providers," Neilson said.

Neilson asks her employees who take college classes to post fliers at colleges and recruit classmates. "Whatever we can do, other than putting out smoke signals," she said.

There's a misperception, Neilson said, that pre-K centers are babysitting jobs. "They assume either the quality is going to be low, or it's all wiping noses, cleaning up spit up, and and tying shoes," she said.

Getting a degree can be a challenge.

Neilson said most of her staff are single, head-of-household women working full time and caring for their own children.

The exams required for the degree - which include a section of 11th grade math - can also be a deterrent.

"The biggest barrier is the idea that given the salaries, it's just not worth their time," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Still, with all of the universities in Philadelphia and national interest in early childhood education growing, Cooper said there's a clear pipeline opportunity here.

"In Indiana County, it could be hard. Here, I think we're primed and ready to go," Cooper said.

The state offers up to $6,000 a year in tuition assistance for students working in pre-K centers.

The Community College of Philadelphia, alone, has 450 students enrolled in its early-childhood program, said Amy Saia, the program coordinator.

Walk into a pre-K classroom, Saia said, and you can easily spot the teachers attuned to their students. "You hear it in the tone of their voice, their level of engagement," she said. "They understand how to support a young child. They're talking about experiences children understand."

It is just as obvious when a teacher doesn't get it. Children are shuffled around seemingly with no purpose or asked to do tasks beyond their age, Saia said, which leads to frustration.

Rouse is one who gets it, his supervisor says.

He was living with his mother in July 2015 when damage to their home left him with no place to stay and only $500 in savings. He found a rooming house for a time and then went to the shelter.

"I had no idea what he was going through until he told me," said his supervisor, Tynnette Beyah. "He was the same with the kids. You can tell, some people have a calling."

Rouse is now living in a one-bedroom, getting rental assistance from Congreso Rapid Rehousing.

Last week, he organized his class for circle time in a room bursting with color, walls covered with artwork, paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.

"Hear my voice? Clap one time!" Rouse said.

Clap.

"Hear my voice? Clap two times!"

Clap, Clap.

"Could someone be my friend up here? I could use a helper before we get started," he said.

Ten little arms shot up.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506

@juliaterruso