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At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Marla Talley gives a guided tour of one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the United States. It’s about seven times the size of Manhattan.
Talley points out rows of barracks, housing quarters for single Marines and the giant commissary, or general store. With the barbed wire fences, rows of armored vehicles and dozens of Marines doing jumping jacks, it’s unlike anything most civilians are likely to see on a day-to-day basis.
On one side of the road is a huge vehicle that is about three times the size of a car transporter.
“They would load their tanks on that to haul them wherever we needed to go,” she says.
There are other signs that read “live artillery shots” and “hand grenade range.”
“When they’re firing their big guns, it’s no big deal, we hear them all the time,” Talley says.
About 45,000 Marines are stationed at Camp Lejeune and most of them are between 18 and 25 years old. And where there are lots of young Marines, there are lots of babies.
As many as 40 percent of the approximately 2 million military children in the United States are under the age of 5. Educating these young learners has become a priority in recent decades, and the military has become a leader in early childhood education.
Every day at a child development center at Camp Lejeune, starting at 5:30 a.m., there’s a steady stream of Marines dropping off their children before they race to physical training. The Marines’ camouflage uniforms and boots are a sharp contrast to the kids’ frilly dresses and stuffed animals.
Lance Cpl. Jennifer Rialta signs in her 11-month-old daughter Persephone, who has been at the center since she was two months old. Rialta says she loves the fact Persephone is constantly learning at the center.
“At home, all of a sudden, you’ll see her do things that you’ve never seen before and suddenly I’m like ‘Where did you get that from? I know we haven’t taught you that,’” Rialta says. “She’s starting pulling herself up and using her sippy cup in class; she still won’t do that at home. She’s started to eat more food. It’s great here.”
Persephone is taking part in what’s been called the largest employer-sponsored child care program in the country.
“Two hundred thousand children in 800 centers, and 3,500 child care homes, about 40,000 employees,” says Barbara Thompson, the director of the Office of Family Policy, Children and Youth for the Department of Defense.
She says the military child care system wasn’t always as strong.
“In 1983, my center was a pre-fabricated chapel from Southeast Asia that had actually fallen off the ship into the water. I remember my first day on the job; there were no toys. There was just a bin of broken crayons,” Thompson says.
There were cases of child abuse and neglect and tens of thousands of children on waiting lists across the country. Some centers had staff turnover of 300 percent every year. Deborah Phillips, a professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, says there were Congressional hearings.
“Rampant safety violations. Providers were earning wages at the level of garbage collectors,” Phillips says.
Thompson says that back then, child care wasn’t a priority.
“There was a saying in the military that if they wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one, with your boots and your uniform,” Thompson says.
But attitudes slowly began to shift, and commanders began to recognize how important child care was to the military’s primary mission, not to mention recruitment and retention.
“The idea is that if you have high-quality child care and you can count on it every day, you can go to work, you can do your mission, because you’re not worried about your child,” Thompson says.
At the same time, Phillips says there were more women joining the military, more single mothers and more families where both parents served.
“So the need of the military families ramped up for child care exactly at a time when there was this perfect storm of negative publicity,” Phillips says.
That led to the Military Child Care Act of 1989, a law that tried to systemically improve the cost, convenience and quality at these centers.
“And with that, we just died and moved to heaven,” says Marla Talley.
That’s Talley’s way of saying the child care system was transformed. She oversees child care at Camp Lejeune. The Child Development Centers just on the base can now accommodate 1,600 children, from newborns to 5-year-olds. That number is triple what it was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I had a pediatrician friend at the Naval Hospital and he said there are two things that Marines do well: they shoot their guns and they make babies,” Talley says. “You can almost watch the calendar when they come back. Nine or 10 months after big units return, there’s lots more babies being born.”
Two-year-old Gracin King is toddling about in his Superman shoes before being scooped up by his dad, Cpl. Jacob King. On average, a military service member like King pays $110 per week for child care, while civilians at non-military child care centers across the country pay, on average, about $180. The military subsidizes almost two-thirds of the cost of care, and parent fees are based on a sliding scale of family income, not the age of a child or a parent’s rank.
|$29,401 – $35,700||$62-$74|
|$35,701 – $46,200||$77-$90|
|$46,201 – $57,750||$93-$105|
|$57,751 – $73,500||$108-$121|
|$73,501 – $85,000||$124-$130|
|$85,001 – $100,000||$133|
|$100,001 – $125,000||$136|
|More than $125,000||$139|
King says he’s a single dad who works long hours on anti-tank missiles. So he needs his son’s child care to be both affordable and convenient.
“This place stays open as long as I’m at work, without charging more. All my family is on the West Coast; I was supposed to be stationed on the West Coast, but you go where the Marine Corps tells you to go,” King says.
Some military child development centers have 24-hour care or drop-in hours. Marla Talley says being flexible is critical because military jobs often are not.
“Marines just aren’t late. The ramifications of them being late are severe. They may not be promoted; they may have severe disciplinary actions taken against them,” Talley says. “It isn’t just the same as waltzing in and telling your boss, ‘I’m sorry the traffic is bad.’”
The reforms to military child development centers also tightened oversight, with each center now receiving four unannounced inspections every year.
These inspections provide what Georgetown University’s Deborah Phillips calls “a floor of safety” for children to make sure they won’t be harmed.
“But you have to take it to the next level to make sure you’re fostering child development,” she says.
Phillips says that’s where accreditation or validation from an independent national organization comes in. Experts observe classroom interactions and assess performance based on a number of basic questions.
“Are they emotionally supportive? Is there an effort to support early learning? Are there adequate materials that are stimulating for the children?” Phillips says.
She says 97 percent of military child care centers are accredited, which means they’ve been independently certified as “high quality.” That compares with just 10 percent of civilian centers.
At a Camp Lejeune child development center, teacher Deloris Carter works with infants. She’s dancing and waving colored scarves in front of two of her young pupils — an 8-month-old and an 11-month-old.
Carter says her dancing has a purpose: introducing the infants to different rhythms and sounds.
“Teaching them texture, color, shape. We’re waving our scarves from side to side to create movement, to build strong muscles,” Carter says.
What makes this center so good is what researchers say would make any child center good: academic goals are very intentional. For example, right next to pictures children have finger painted with Jello and oatmeal is a sign on the wall that reads: “Helps with fine motor development.” Toddlers learn baby sign language. Even infants have individualized lesson plans.
“They learn different things from you — facial expressions, how to hold their bottles, how to sit up, how to stand, how to pull up. Like help them learn to reach, grab, grasp, and pull using strong muscles in their legs,” Carter says. “In my room, even a baby who’s very young will have something next to him or her to look at and we always talk to them. Lots of hugs and love. And much praise, much praise.”
Teachers at military child development centers are paid more than teachers at civilian child care centers: $15 an hour versus less than $10, on average. They also get military benefits — everything from retirement and vacation to healthcare and access to the gym. And unlike their counterparts at civilian centers, they are required to complete a certain amount of professional development. Experts say the linchpin of this system is the more training you do, the more money you make.
“I was surprised with all the training. There was always training. Always. I mean they pay for the training for you to make more money,” says Carter. “All you need to do is sign up for it. They want you to be the best you can be.”
Civilian child care facilities lose approximately 30 percent of their employees every year in turnover. Turnover at Camp Lejeune is in the single digits, if you don’t count military spouses who have to move when their spouses get reassigned.
What makes these military centers unique, though, is that teachers receive specialized training because they are working with children who face what experts have identified as unique stresses. One way teachers help them process their feelings is by reading books that connect with their experiences.
The children are at an age where child psychologists say they are forming and solidifying parental attachments, so Marla Talley says their teachers must help them make sense of sometimes frequent and lengthy deployments.
“I have some copies of pictures that children drew when the war first started in 2003, and the perceptions that these preschoolers had of where their fathers were, their fathers were going to the big sandbox,” Talley says. “One little boy wrote that his daddy drove the blue Durango to Kuwait and he left it in Kuwait, and when he came back, he was going to buy a new car. So children’s perceptions of what their parents do are very, very real, but in terms that they can understand.”
Deborah Phillips calls children at this age “emotional sponges,” soaking up everything.
“Between birth and 5 in particular, are the times of the most rapid development of the children’s’ emotional coping systems. Children who are struggling with anxiety and sadness and fear — and who don’t get adult support — don’t learn the necessary coping skills we need to have throughout life. These children are at very high risk for developing mental health problems as they grow up, like anxiety problems, depression and also the more kind of acting out kinds of behaviors,” Phillips says.
There is little research on how the youngest military children are affected by war, but studies suggest children with a deployed parent are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems.
Teacher Kristie Tegtmeier says she’s seen children become withdrawn or anxious, cry, or get angry for no apparent reason.
“One time, a child came into the room, and just very quiet and said to me, ‘My daddy left,’ and I say, ‘Okay,’ and he looked and me and said, ‘I promise I’ll be good, I’ll be good.’ And you just have to teach them that it’s not their fault,” Tegtmeier says.
Every classroom has a designated “safe space” where children can spend a few moments alone. Teachers also work with them on coping techniques like deep breathing, identifying emotions and learning to ask for help. Tegtmeier says she’s not sure how long she has with children before their parents are stationed somewhere else, so it’s important they learn skills, including how to make friends and be independent.
Research shows there’s an uptick in child abuse and neglect during deployments, and teachers like Deloris Carter are trained to recognize and report the signs of abuse.
“When they come in, you check immediately for temperature, or you’re looking in their eyes to see if something is going on. You just need to know you’re looking for any sign on the arms, the legs to make sure for the safety for the children,” Carter says.
Kristie Tegtmeier says sometimes parents come back from war different — maybe drinking, not wanting to play or getting angry easily — and that’s confusing for children as well. One father, for example, never took off his dark glasses and never smiled or talked when dropping off his child.
“Sometimes, the kids will come to you and tell you that ‘Daddy’s really quiet,’ or ‘Daddy gets mad at me over little things,’ and you just kind of talk to them and say, you know, ‘It isn’t you, he’s having a bad day,’” Tegtmeier says.
It’s 6 p.m. and Marines are striding back in to this child center to pick up their children. Marine Jennifer Rialta holds her 11-month-old daughter Persephone close as they get ready to go home.
“I love picking her up, it’s like the best part of the day, every day,” Rialta says.
Rialta’s husband is also in the military and just back from a deployment. In a few months, they’re packing up to move to a base in Okinawa, Japan. It’s a lot of change but she’s not complaining.
“You just adapt and overcome as the Marine Corps would say,” Rialta says.
Deborah Phillips of Georgetown University says that when she looks at civilian reports about how spotty child care can be and how it can cost more to care for an infant than a year’s tuition at a public university, she has a simple piece of advice for parents: “If you want high quality child care, join the military!”
She says the military has shown us that change is possible.
“This amazing transformation from a system that was really in serious trouble to the best child care system in the country has been referred to as a Cinderella story,” Phillips says.
If these child care centers are the Cinderella of the system, the Department of Defense is the fairy godmother. The military spent more than $800 million last year on child care. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total amount of military spending was at its highest level in 2010: $720 billion. Since then, that amount has steadily decreased, and this year, it’s closer to $580 billion. Next year the amount is expected to be closer to $550 billion.
Many family advocates say they are “deeply concerned” about budget cuts, especially because every branch of service already has waiting lists. The military is only meeting 70 percent of the need for child care.
Eileen Huck with the National Military Family Association says parents around the world are already seeing child care slots cut. And for service members who are often stationed far from their extended families, she says that makes a big difference.
“If you have a doctor’s appointment, you can’t ask your sister to come by and watch your kids for a little while. You can’t call on grandma necessarily to come and babysit,” Huck says.
Barbara Thompson says Guard and Reserve families who may not live close to installations can receive financial assistance so their children can go to civilian daycare centers. She says that, so far, the military has initially worked with 13 states, including Colorado, Nevada and Missouri on stricter standards, such as requiring background checks and inspections.
“So that we could start to raise the bar on quality in those states, so it’s not just the military children receive a higher quality arrangement, it’s all children. And that’s been very successful; we’ve had over 17 legislative changes,” Thompson says.
The military is also partnering with universities to create free online training for child care employees and a comprehensive curriculum for child care centers, both military and civilian, across the country.
The military’s child care system has come a long way from the days when it was considered the “ghetto of American child care.” The big question, though, is what lies ahead in the next few years and whether the next generation of military children will also be able to attend what are now considered some of the nation’s best centers for our youngest learners.