TWENTY years ago, day-care programs carried a stigma in the United States: ``Nice people'' would never send their children there. Day care was a place for children whose mothers scrubbed floors, says Grace L. Mitchell, who operated her own nursery school at the time. Even directors of nursery schools felt day care was beneath them.

``They would stand up and say `Well, believe me, we're a nursery school, and we're not going to go into day care!'''

Mrs. Mitchell gently laughs as she recalls those days. Little by little, she says, those schools extended hours. ``I don't think many mothers now think they're doing something wicked.''

As a well-stoked fire dances in the fireplace of her gracious living room here, Mitchell recounts her experience of over 50 years as an educator and child-care expert. At age 80, she's seen the changes - social and political - that have affected children. More than once she has been on the front lines, speaking out on their behalf.

``If I thought that anything I could say or write would make just a teeny bit of difference, that would be my legacy to children,'' she says. (Her legacy already includes her son, noted lawyer F.Lee Bailey.)

As the nation grapples with the issue of child care, Mitchell, often called ``the grande dame of day care,'' continues to do her part. Within the last year, she has visited more than 70 programs in 12 states, evaluating their progress, talking to staff, and giving workshops. When the project is done, she will distill her findings into a booklet for educators and politicians.

Though she conducted a similar study 10 years ago (resulting in her PhD and ``The Day Care Book,'' a guide for working parents), ``I decided it was time to get out again and see what had changed,'' Mitchell says. ``I'm not ready for shuffleboard yet.''

Ever since she founded Green Acres Day School in Waltham, Mass., in 1933, Mitchell has been charting the waters of child care. During World War II, she converted her school to a ``war nursery'' - the only one on the East Coast subsidized by industry (Raytheon Company). In 1970, she co-founded a chain of ``for profit'' day-care centers, a concept that met with initial disdain from many in the child-care field.

From girlhood, says Mitchell, ``the greatest motivation for me was to have someone tell me `you can't.'''

Two decades ago, when she felt she had ``reached her peak'' at age 60, a burst of renewed inspiration came upon her. She took her mother's 88-year-old cousin to Nova Scotia for a nostalgic road trip. On the way back, they stopped for the night.

``I woke up the next morning, and I looked over at her, and I thought, `She's 88, and she could keep doing this for another week. I'm bushed, and I'm only 60. What am I doing thinking I'm all through? I could live to be 90!''

That's when green lights began to flash, she says. Thirty more years. ``That would be one third of a lifetime, I thought. What could I do in a third of a lifetime?

``The very next day, I took my little yellow Corvair convertible to the body shop and had it painted fire-engine red - as a symbol of my whole new attitude about life.'' FROM then on, Mitchell shifted into high gear. Though still director of Green Acres, she decided to start a day-care program ``for profit'' with the help of an entrepreneur. Suddenly Mitchell found herself out five nights a week meeting with zoning boards and traveling to Wall Street to talk with investors. ``Here was the person who had had to take a nap every day after lunch!'' she says.

In the next 10 years, Living and Learning Center Inc. grew to include 47 branches serving more than 5,000 families in New England. ``I was proud of what we were doing,'' says Mitchell. By 1982, she had earned her doctorate, written three books, co-founded a publishing company, and served on the board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

These days, Mitchell says, there is much more high-quality day care available than before. There's less of the ``really terrible'' day care, too, thanks to media attention and public awareness, she explains.

``Mediocre'' day care abounds, though, and many parents are settling for it - especially the middle class. ``They are the people who earn too much to get the good child care that's provided by funded programs, but don't earn enough to get what they really want. They've had to settle for what was in between.''

Mitchell has seen examples of ``robot training,'' her term for ``sit still, keep still, do as you're told'' treatment of young children. She worries, she says, about children who spend six to nine hours a day in this kind of environment. How might this affect their behavior as adults? she asks.

``I truly believe we are paying dearly now for the neglect of the early '70s,'' she says, referring to the children who grew up on the streets then and are troubled teen-agers today. At the time, ``everybody dragged his feet and argued'' about child care. Much of the battle was between the profit and nonprofit groups. Even today, she says, ``grown-ups who guard their own turf hold the whole child-care movement back.''

``If the day ever comes when people can think about children, and everyone can say, `All right, let's all work together and come up with the very best for children,' then maybe something will happen,'' says Mitchell.

In her travels, one of the best programs she saw involved an entire community in Florida: Government, business, and parents put what they can afford into the pot. She'd like to see more of that. Parents assume the majority of operating costs in this $15-billion industry, an industry expected to grow 21 percent annually until 1995, says the Information Interface Institute in a survey for Pre-K Today magazine.

As she travels to day-care centers today, teaching directors how to improve their programs, she shares her ``I can, I am'' philosophy: ``I usually begin with a few minutes about what's happened in my life. I say, `You have a dream tucked away, but pull it out and do something about it.'''

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