Sara Renken has never wanted to do anything else. She’s a third-grade teacher at Eagle Elementary School in Eagle, Nebraska. “I’ve always had a natural connection with kids,” she said. “I knew I made the right choice a few years into my career. It just felt right.”
Renken said she loves her job mostly because of the relationships she builds with kids and their families in this small village of about 1,000 people in Cass County.
Renken said teaching kids feels like a calling. But she also has challenging days and ongoing battles.
Not enough time and increasingly high expectations from federal and state governments are her No. 1 issues.
“You have little human beings that walk through your door,” she said. “They’re not just a number, they’re a person.
… We do so much more than just trying to get them to learn words, science, math. My job is to help them grow up, to help them be the best that they can be.”
Early childhood educators are crucial to young children’s learning and development. Yet, these teachers are the most likely to leave their professions.
Renken is one of the lucky ones. She teaches in a public school system and has never considered leaving her profession. Many early childhood educators, however, teach at private child care centers or preschools that don’t have the resources to pay staff sufficiently or provide benefits, such as health insurance or retirement savings. In fact, many early childhood teachers barely scrape by.
The median salary for child care workers in Nebraska was $22,870 in 2015, according to information shared by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. That’s half of the median salary for public school teachers and below the federal poverty line for a family of three.
Not surprisingly, there is high turnover within the field — up to 26 percent annually in licensed child care settings — and a critical shortage of quality educators. A 2016 Kids Count report said that roughly 84% of Nebraska counties with child care centers report being unable to meet demand.
Frequent teacher turnover and inconsistent care, especially in the early, formative years, can have devastating effects on children and the learning process. But for the past three years, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, which Renken serves on and was convened by the Buffett Institute, has been working to tackle the most complex and pressing challenges facing Nebraska today — expanding and strengthening the state’s early childhood workforce to meet children’s needs throughout the first eight years of life.
Susan Sarver, director of workforce planning and development at the Buffett Institute, said there are many factors that keep early childhood teachers from earning enough to stay in their positions. One is perception. Not that long ago, the role of child care providers was viewed as relatively passive, but now science has caught up to what many knew intuitively. Those early years are crucial in a child’s development.
According to information on the Buffett Institute’s website, nearly 90% of the brain’s growth happens during the first five years of a child’s life. More than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. These are the connections that build brain architecture — the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior and health depend.
Children who do not receive high-quality education in their early years are far more likely to drop out of school later on, be placed in special education and not go to college — and even 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. The stakes are high.
“We know now from science that birth through third grade is a unique developmental period,” said Sarver. “That infant or toddler teacher needs to be just as competent as a teacher for older students. Their needs are just different. We know better now, so we’re trying to be better.”
Another problem is cost. The younger the children, the more teachers are needed per student. At child care centers and private preschools, Sarver said those costs eat up as much as 80 percent of the budget.
“Home-based providers often say they would like to raise their rates, but they know they can’t,” she said. “Parents are stretched. They can’t pay any more. The cost of putting an infant in child care costs more than college tuition.”
Consistent standards for teacher training also present a challenge. “It’s kind of a historical artifact,” Sarver said. “They began as two different systems. K-12 has a very clear path. 0-5 started a little differently.” Unlike for teachers of older students, there are no set requirements for early childhood educators, and requiring advanced degrees across the board is not necessarily the answer.
Determining the best way forward is a monumental task. But the commission formed by the Buffett Institute brought together about 40 people from diverse backgrounds in the public and private sectors to tackle it.
“It’s the unusual suspects,” Sarver said. “The department of labor, the chamber of commerce … it’s a unique collaboration.”
All those groups, along with the departments of education and health and human services — two divisions that exist in silos in many states, hold pieces of the puzzle. The hope is the more they collaborate, the more the big picture will come into view. Sarver said people across the early childhood spectrum are committed to moving forward together. They’re invested, she said, and, importantly, they get along.
“Nebraska nice really comes through,” she said. “It’s a small enough group that we’re able to tackle the hardest questions.”
The commission published a report in late January that details the challenges Nebraska faces and makes recommendations on how to address them. Sarver said she expects the University of Nebraska system to play an important role as the state moves forward in implementing the commission’s recommendations, given the research, knowledge and competencies that are housed there and that are required to make the changes that are needed. Many others will also be involved, including state and local governments, the early childhood community, K-12 education, businesses and private philanthropy.
“This is not a unique problem,” Sarver said. “We see this everywhere. The advantage we have in Nebraska is there are a lot of really good things going on in the state. We want to build on those strengths.”
Renken said she hopes the commission can raise awareness and help people understand the value of her profession.
“When the public knows the need and the value for good, quality care for our young kids, that’s when we’re going to see change,” she said. “One voice can be heard. But a lot of voices can start to make a difference. We’re still growing — but we’re becoming a little more vocal, a little louder.”
The Buffett Early Childhood Institute was created in 2011 and emerged from the shared vision of the University of Nebraska leadership and Susie Buffett, a longtime philanthropist and champion of early childhood education and development. More information about the institute and the Nebraska Early Childhood Commission report can be found at earlyyearsmatter.org/workforce.