Danielle Pollard sat cross-legged in a carpeted room at Hug Me Tight Child Life Center in the Hill District and held up a drawing the size of an index card. The seven children sitting in tiny chairs arranged in a semicircle around her intensely eyed the drawing.

“Who is this?” asked Pollard, who’s been teaching at the school for more than a decade.

“Snowman,” several children called out. All were 2 years old.

“Is the snowman hot or cold?” Pollard asked.

“Cold,” said a tiny girl wearing a black-and-white shirt.

“Good job!” said Pollard. The girl stepped forward to take the drawing and attach it to the appropriate portion of a large sheet of paper divided into two sections, “hot” and “cold.”

Just down the hall, a room similarly equipped with brightly colored desks and tiny chairs remained dark and empty. There, no young children learned to sit attentively and listen, to process a question, to identify a picture and then recognize a written word.

And that was not the only unused room at the center. Hug Me Tight is approved to accept up to 98 students, but only 23 are currently enrolled. The problem? A lack of teachers. It’s an issue faced by a number of child care centers across the state.

Hug Me Tight has difficulty recruiting and retaining good teachers because the pay is so low. Teachers at child care centers in Pennsylvania make an average of $12.43 an hour, according to one recent study. That’s not enough to attract and retain employees, says Wanda Franklin, Hug Me Tight’s executive director.

Teachers Quila Fooks, left, and Lisa Williams help one-year-old students color Mother’s Day Cards at Hug Me Tight. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“It’s tough to compete with McDonalds paying $15 an hour and up,” Franklin said. “All my staff are on public assistance. They qualify. I can’t afford to pay health insurance. I’d like to, but I don’t have the means to do it.”

Franklin traveled to Harrisburg on Tuesday of last week to meet with legislators and seek increased financial support for child care throughout the state. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 2023-24 budget proposal provides an additional $66.7 million in state funds for child care programs. That amount, which makes up for federal funds set to expire, simply maintains the status quo for a child care system already in crisis, say child care advocates and providers such as Franklin.

In fact, the system is “on the brink of a breakdown,” according to Start Strong PA, which advocates to make child care more accessible and affordable. A February survey by the organization reports that 84 percent of the 1,107 responding child care programs suffered from staff shortages. The result: A closure of 1,599 classrooms and 38,321 children sitting on waiting lists to get into programs.

This all comes at a staggering cost — $6.65 billion in lost wages, productivity and revenue, according to Start Strong PA. Bearing that cost are working families struggling to balance work and child care, as well as employers and taxpayers.

Centers such as Hugh Me Tight accept students ages 1 through 5 — a crucial time in a child’s development, Franklin said. In addition to acquiring basic skills needed to succeed in kindergarten and elementary school, children at this age first learn how to interact with their peers and teachers.

Thriving child care centers are especially important in underserved communities facing a number of challenges, such as high rates of poverty and unemployment, Franklin said.

Hug Me Tight has earned a “STAR 4” quality rating — the highest issued by the state’s department of education. Teaching at such a center comes with increased challenges, since teachers “do additional things like child assessments, child screenings, lesson plans, things that make a teacher’s job more intense,” said Katie Streiff of the Early Learning Resource Center. Streiff is a “quality coach” who helps Hug Me Tight maintain its STAR 4 rating. “There’s more to do, more to keep up with to maintain that four-star level.”

Some child care teachers earn degrees and certifications, then move on to work in public schools, where they earn higher pay and employees receive benefits. This further depletes the workforce at places such as Hug Me Tight.

Stay Strong PA reports that nearly 50 percent of surveyed early childhood educators think it’s unlikely they’ll be working for their current employer in five years. In addition, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the nation’s early childhood workforce still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic — it’s missing over 100,000 workers.

Child care proponents are approaching lawmakers with a specific “ask” during the budget season.

“What we need to see is investment in wages through the budget,” said Emily Neff, director of public policy for Trying Together, an organization that advocates and provides community resources for the education of young children.  “We’re asking for $430 million specifically to implement a wage scale, so that teachers who come in with a high school or GED can make $15 an hour.” Those with an associate’s degree would earn $19 an hour; teachers with bachelor’s degrees would earn $21 an hour.

These wages would help child care centers attract and retain committed teachers, she said.

That would be a big relief at Hug Me Tight, where the teacher shortage and low enrollment create a financial strain. In fact, simply keeping the bills paid has been “a piecemeal type of situation with lots of prayer,” Franklin said. The center receives $27,000 each month in state subsidies, she said. Other income includes $5,000 to $7,000 per month in parent co-pays and a few local grants. Hug Me Tight pays $12,000 per month in rent, and the center’s 10 employees (seven teachers, two administrators and a facilities manager) cost about $6,000 per week. Other expenses include insurance and materials.

An infant care room at the center is set up to accept children. Its cribs remain empty, however, due to lack of staff. Despite the challenges, Franklin said she’s optimistic Hug Me Tight will be able to continue providing child care, and grow in the future. To make certain, she’s been speaking out and asking state lawmakers for help

“I’m not going to look at the glass as half empty,” she said. “As long as we have breath, we have a chance.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.