Sandra Amagwulla speaks softly to the toddlers in her care. She will shake her head of loose, dark curls to amuse them, and smile at them to make them smile.
But when Ms. Amagwulla talks of the night courses she is taking and the scholarship program that helps her pay for them, she speaks emphatically, almost urgently.
"I'm learning about a lot of things I had always asked about, different stages of development, different theories," the day-care teacher says. "Now when I observe children, I understand what they're doing."
Before she began her studies, Amagwulla was a part of one of the most pressing problems in America's day-care system: an underqualified, under-paid work force. Some 40 percent of the nation's day-care teachers have a high-school education or less. On average, they earn one-third as much as elementary-school teachers.
Now, Amagwulla is taking part in one of the most heralded solutions to this problem, North Carolina's T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Project. It offers scholarships for day-care workers to earn accreditation, an associate degree, or even a bachelor's degree in early childhood development. And it promises them a bonus or raise upon completing the coursework.
The program has grown from a small project in 1990 to a statewide, state-funded effort that has trained 5,000 day-care teachers. In addition, five other states have replicated T.E.A.C.H., which stands for "Teacher Education and Compensation Helps." The White House has recently modeled a proposal after it, and several bills pending in Congress include T.E.A.C.H.-like programs.
"T.E.A.C.H. is an excellent solution to the problem of inadequate training," says William Gormley, a public policy professor with an expertise in day-care issues at Georgetown University in Washington.
Funding comes from different sources in different states: some private, some public. In North Carolina, T.E.A.C.H. is awarded more than $1 million a year of state money. It pays for teachers to enroll in early childhood courses in the community college and university system.
The program's results have been striking. Since the pilot program began, scholarship recipients have averaged 18 credit hours a year. And they've increased their earnings from 10 to 40 percent, depending on how far they went with their education.
What makes T.E.A.C.H. successful are the strings tied to its scholarship money. Day-care centers, day-care teachers, and T.E.A.C.H. enter into a three-way agreement before any funding is available. It requires the centers to foot a portion of their teachers' education and agree to pay those who complete their coursework a bonus or raise. Of teachers, it mandates that they stay with their center for at least two years.
The teacher requirement is aimed at assuaging another difficulty in the day-care industry: turnover. Day-care centers across the country can lose as much as 40 percent of their staff in a given year - a number four times as high as the turnover rate for other care-giving industries.
And experts say the turnover rate is not just problematic for day-care center directors. Research shows it has a damaging effect on the children as well. "Turnover is really, really hard on children," says Rosemarie Vardell, at the Center for the Childcare Workforce in Washington. "They experience it as a loss of a relationship."
Research also reveals how important it is to have an educated work force. "People tend to think that education doesn't matter," says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "But what we're learning is that people who have a professional body of knowledge are more able to be warm and loving to every child they serve."
This is evident at Kidworks in Raleigh, N.C., the day-care center where Amagwulla teaches. Here, the hallways and classrooms are bright and airy. The furniture has all been shrunken to a preschoolers' size, including a basketball hoop so short that even four-year-olds can slam dunk.
It's what you don't see that really sets Kidworks apart, though. Like the fact that all of the 57 staff members have either earned or are in the process of earning their associate degree in early childhood development - many of them on T.E.A.C.H. scholarships. Or that most of the teachers have been there for five years, some for 10.
"What really matters is how educated the teachers are," says Lynn Wray, director of Kidworks since 1986 when it opened. "That's the thing that T.E.A.C.H. has done for us. It's one more step in raising up the teacher - and in turn the whole field - to a more professional level."
Experts note, however, that T.E.A.C.H. is only a partial solution. It increases the education level of teachers, but doesn't address the larger issue of low pay in the industry - a factor that will continue to produce high turnover in day-care centers.
That's a problem that T.E.A.C.H.'s founder, Sue Russell, has begun to tackle here, with a program called W.A.G.E.$. It provides yearly income supplements to teachers who have earned their degrees. "I think you need both," Ms. Russell says. "What makes both of them so important is that neither of them costs families. The problem we have is that child care is linked to the parents' ability to pay. What both of these do is break the link."