Melanie Reed was planning to leave her job. Unable to find satisfactory child care for her two children, the school teacher had already filled out the paperwork to resign her post.
But this week, Mrs. Reed is back at work at Buford Elementary, getting ready to welcome a new batch of first-graders. Down the hall, her son and daughter and 14 other children are playing in three classrooms that have been freshly converted into a day-care center.
"My heart is just at ease because of this," Reed says. "I love my job. To be able to bring my children with me and be able to check on them, what could be more ideal?"
As the United States grapples with a severe teacher shortage, Buford hopes the center - touted as the first of its kind in the country - will help recruit new teachers and retain experienced ones.
The help-wanted signs nationwide stem from a number of causes, including the tight labor market, growing numbers of school-age children, and higher-paying career options for women.
But one of the most enduring problems is turnover related to pregnancy and parenting issues.
"The fact is we have a graying teaching force," says Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. Baby-boom teachers are nearing retirement, and 2.2 million new ones are needed by 2010 to take their place. Districts "need to come up with interesting incentives."
Georgia, for example, needs about 2,000 more teachers to fill its classrooms. Last Thursday, the same day the child-care center opened, only 500 applicants showed up at an Atlanta-area job fair designed to fill some of the vacancies before school starts.
Around the country, districts have tried everything from Madison Avenue-style advertising campaigns to housing allowances and signing bonuses in their efforts to put educators in front of chalkboards.
"You name the big city, they're doing it," Ms. Bass says of the new incentives. "All of it is helping. [But] it's one thing to recruit teachers. It's equally important to find ways to retain teachers." She cites statistics that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years.
"It's a swinging door of young people coming and going," says Katherine Boles at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
Ms. Boles, who co-founded the Professional Development Center in Brookline, Mass., believes the teaching path needs reforming. "It's a flat career. The job is the same at retirement as it is on the first day." Part of that, she says, stems from the fact that historically, women taught only until they had children of their own.
Not so today. Hence the Buford day-care center, which was created after the superintendent heard anecdotal evidence that teachers were quitting because of child-care concerns - almost inevitable in a field staffed largely by women. According to the US Department of Education, 14 percent of public school teachers left because of pregnancy and child-rearing issues in 1994.
"Any time you can retain quality people, it's well worth the investment," says Superintendent Thomas Wilson. The center is open to all teachers in the Buford City School District, as well as city employees. Fees range from $100 a week for infants to $80 for toddlers. The school also plans to install a Kiddie-cam that will allow teachers to check on their children via the Internet.
While Buford's teachers seem delighted with the new center, it remains to be seen if other school districts will install on-site day care. "Certainly teachers will go to their leaders and ask for it," says Phyllis Wood, director of the center.
THANKS to a new elementary school, the district had extra space for innovation - an unusual luxury in today's overcrowded schools. With many districts having to educate children in trailers, experts say, finding space for students becomes more important than making room for perks. "It's a good incentive, and should help [the city] keep teachers for a number of years," says Boles. "But it just seems like a Band-Aid."
Also, all of Buford's schools are located within minutes of one another, giving all teachers easy access to the day-care center.
"I timed it. It's three minutes," says Helen Morrow, a sixth-grade teacher and new mother who raced over from the middle school on her lunch break to give her son, Connor, his bottle. Like Reed, she says she doesn't know if she would have returned to teaching if it hadn't been for the new center.
Bass says that while creative incentives are welcome, there are rudimentary improvements - from higher pay to less crowded classes - that need to be instituted to make teaching an attractive career. "If there is extra money and [day care] is something they know teachers want, fine," she says. "But we've got to make sure there are good basics."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society