TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

High quality child care gives military families peace of mind

March 7, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Child care for U.S. military families is among the best in the country and is significantly less expensive than the average civilian care. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week traveled to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to see how the military invested in quality care that builds brains and emotional security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How child care for the U.S. military families came to be among the best in the country.

It now serves an estimated 200,000 children. The average service member spends about 9 percent of their income on child care. The average civilian spends 25 percent.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week traveled to North Carolina to see what the civilian sector can learn for our weekly series Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Discipline, strength, endurance, traits that define the Marine Corps. They’re also known for babies?

MARLA TALLEY, Child Care Worker: Marines do two things really, really, really well. They shoot their guns, and they make a lot of babies.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: At Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Marla Talley oversees the child care centers.

MARLA TALLEY: We usually see a great increase in our request for infant care nine months after a unit comes back from a deployment.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Camp Lejeune is one of the country’s largest Marine Corps installations, seven times the size of Manhattan. The child development centers, or CDCs, can accommodate 1,800 children under the age of 5.

COL. MICHAEL SCALISE, U.S. Marine Corps: Everything that we do as Marines is linked with readiness. CDCS are a part of that.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Colonel Michael Scalise is deputy commander.

COL. MICHAEL SCALISE: When you think in terms of a Marine that is focused, he’s focused on training, he’s focused on deploying. Anything that he has to worry about, from his family’s standpoint, whether that’s his children or his spouse, or her children or spouse, deviate from that Marine’s ability to focus.

STAFF SGT. KATHLEEN HARGROVE, U.S. Marine Corps: I start my day at 05:45 at the barracks, which means I have to drop Annabelle off at day care no later than 5:30.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Staff Sergeant Kathleen Hargrove is a single mother.

STAFF SGT. KATHLEEN HARGROVE: I can’t really use excuses to be late in the Marine Corps. That’s not an acceptable answer. They expect you to be there when you’re told to be.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Across all branches of service, members of the U.S. military have about two million children, more than 40 percent of them under the age of 5. But child care in the military hasn’t always been this good.

DEBORAH PHILLIPS, Georgetown University: In the ’70s, the military child care system was really a system in crisis. There were very few inspections done of the program, so even basic safety and health wasn’t protected.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Deborah Phillips is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

DEBORAH PHILLIPS: The child care teachers in the military, child care centers were paid on a par with the garbage collectors in the military system.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The dismal state of child care led to congressional hearings, and eventually the child care budget increased 62 percent.

Barbara Thompson recently retired from the Pentagon as director of military family readiness.

BARBARA THOMPSON, Retired Pentagon Director of Military Family Readiness: That was earth-shattering, I would say, for those of us in the military child development system. It gave us the opportunity to hire training and curriculum specialists. It provided federal dollars, so that the cost of care would be subsidized by the federal government.

DEBORAH PHILLIPS: People have referred to what happened with military child care as a Cinderella story, because you had this system going from a system in crisis to a model for the nation in under five years.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Federal subsidies meant more teachers were hired, they were more qualified, and they were paid better. It’s no surprise, then, 97 percent of military centers are independently certified as high-quality, compared to less than 10 percent of civilian centers.

WOMAN: This is a loft. And I absolutely love these.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Unlike many civilian centers, where the focus is primarily on health and safety, the military goes one step further.

MARLA TALLEY: We’re in the business of building brains. It looks like the children are doing nothing but playing, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. But the activities that they have are all designed to promote some portion of that child’s growth and development.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Even infants have lesson plans.

WOMAN: You want some bubbles?

We like to watch the bubbles. It helps us work on our focusing and tracking skills and learning that things are here one moment and they’re gone the next.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Educators use every chance to teach, even during mealtimes.

WOMAN: By pouring, that’s measuring. They’re learning how much milk. Sometimes, they will say it’s full or it’s half. So, they’re learning math.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Because teachers are paid about a third more than their civilian counterparts, there’s very little turnover. The military pays for all their training. This child care system also focuses on the unique needs of military children.

This is an age where children are forming and solidifying parental attachments. So, when a mother or father leaves for extended periods of time, it can be very upsetting.

META JACKSON, Teacher: This is when mommies and daddies may leave and go far, far away.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Most children here have had parents who’ve deployed more than once.

META JACKSON: Now, when your mommies and daddies go away, are you sad?

A lot of kids will come back and say: Dad don’t want to talk. Dad is not home yet.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Each classroom has a safe space. And teachers help children identify emotions, breathing techniques, and how to ask for help.

MARLA TALLEY: For a lot of young children, the child care facility that they go to, especially here, becomes the one stable thing in their life during that period of time.

They can come in here, and they can forget that mom or dad has deployed or that things are a little topsy-turvy at home, because, when I come here, my same friends are going to be here, my teachers are going to be here, I have a routine.

And that’s really crucial, then, because those children can then take that security back home with them.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Gunnery Sergeant Craig Skinner and Master Sergeant Bergen Skinner, who have three children in this child care center, say they see evidence every day that their children are learning.

GUNNERY SGT. CRAIG SKINNER, U.S. Marine Corps: About a week ago, Preston came in, and he actually just wrote his name down. We were doing something and he started spelling his name. And we’re like, OK, so you actually know how to do this.

MASTER SGT. BERGEN SKINNER, U.S. Marine Corps: They actually helped potty train my children.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: These Marines say child care centers give them the assurance that their children are safe and loved, an assurance most civilian parents have a harder time finding.

MASTER SGT. BERGEN SKINNER: We both work really long hours. And I can’t explain the feeling that I get when I go pick up my children and they run to me because they’re happy because they had such a great day. They love being there.

MAN: There’s only four targets out here, four individuals. Make sense?

MAN: Yes, Sergeant.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: For Marines and other service members, this peace of mind means more than being just a satisfied parent. It means they can concentrate on their mission wherever it may take them.

I’m Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week for the PBS NewsHour.