BENNINGTON — As early education leaders. Alyson Grzyb and Laurie Metcalfe are reminded daily of why what they do matters — and the financial hurdles that still stand between families and affordable quality child care.
Grzyb, director of the Bennington Early Childhood Center, and Metcalfe, director of the Northshire Day School in Manchester, were recently recognized by a statewide association for their commitment to providing learning opportunities for young children.
Both women love what they do for a living — because they enjoy the work, and because they know how important it is.
“I absolutely love the fact that I can witness so much growth. You can almost see the children learning right before your eyes,” Grzyb said. “And they’re so excited to learn at this age. They love to learn … they’re excited about anything you introduce to them.”
Metcalfe said that more people should know and understand what early educators do — and how crucial it is for kids, and for their community, to have the best start possible.
Early childhood might seem like child’s play, she said, but that play is how children learn. The activities led by the schools’ teachers are carefully thought out and intentional and targeted for specific learning objectives, she explained.
“I strongly believe in the value of early childhood education, and the trajectory that creates for success,” Metcalfe said. “We serve 85 to 90 children — that means we get to make a significant meaningful impact in our community.”
As administrators, both women are keenly aware of the challenges facing early childhood education, in Vermont and across the country.
According to the statewide advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids, three out of five Vermont preschool-aged children don’t have access to quality child care — a limiting factor that keeps parents from working in a state with significant unmet workforce needs.
Training and retention are big hurdles, Grzyb and Metcalfe said. So is the tightrope between offering a program parents can afford, and offering staff wages they can live on.
“It’s definitely a challenge to pay staff what they are worth,” Grzyb said. “One of the big issues we face is we can’t ask parents to pay any more — they’re already paying an exorbitant amount. But because we can’t ask them to pay any more we’re stuck paying what we’re paying.”
For more than half the staff, that’s $15 an hour or less, she said; the other half earn between $15 and $20 per hour, and “those are teachers, the ones with degrees,” she said. The program can’t afford to offer health insurance or an employer match for retirement savings accounts.
“Those are not living wages,” Grzyb said.
Metcalfe knows that dilemma personally: It forced her out of the field for seven years, she said, because she could not make ends meet as a single parent on an early education paycheck.
“Here’s the thing: Having had the experience of working in public education and private early education, I realize the expectations on early childhood educators are a lot more than other education fields. We expect more from them and pay them significantly less,” Metcalfe said.
The trade-off for teachers in the field, Grzyb and Metcalfe said, is that they genuinely love what they do.
“For sure all of my teachers are very passionate about their jobs, passionate about their work,” Grzyb said. “They love working with young children. They tell me all the time they wish they could be paid more … they get joy out of their work. That is why they continue doing it.”
Both schools raise funds through grants and fundraising. Northshire Day School, which faced a significant operating deficit last year, successfully petitioned Town Meeting voters for funding in Manchester ($87,000) and Sunderland ($11,000).
Metcalfe said 85 percent of her annual budget goes to compensation for her staff — and that if she had more resources, they would go to pay raises. That said, she emphasized how grateful she is for the community’s support of the school.
“One of reasons I’m here specifically is this school has shown a long-term commitment to children and families. They built this school. That says a lot our community — the communities we serve are behind us.”
Early childhood advocates are looking to Montpelier for support. A landmark early childhood bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott in 2021 ordered a study of what it would cost to subsidize early childhood education throughout the state, and where that funding might come from. It’s due in January, and is expected to be a high priority for lawmakers in the 2023-24 session.
Advocates are hoping that a revenue source can be found to help subsidize the cost of care so that no family pays more than 10 percent of its annual income on child care.