Where Parents Are Always Welcome
By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 24, 1999 This story is part of a series of articles on the military's effort to provide quality, affordable child care. For the most current information, visit the web site special "Formula and Fatigues, Diapers and Duty" at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/childcare/.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Barbara Smejkal once described herself as "not knowing what to look for in a child care center." Now she's an outspoken member of the parent advisory board at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and educates other parents about military centers.
"My child is here [child development center] 10 hours a day," said Smejkal, an information manager at Andrews. "She's here more awake than in my own house, and I would like to have some sort of influence on how things go for her."
Smejkal is not only an active board member, she also spends at least 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon talking with her daughter's caregivers. She even makes time to visit the center at least once a week during lunch to read or play with her daughter and other children.
But Smejkal is not typical of most parents. It's easy to get caught up in the "hi and bye" routine of popping in to drop off and pick up your child, she admitted. But, she said, it's well worth the extra time spent getting to know your child's care provider.
"Communication [between parents and caregivers] is so very important," said Sandy Holcomb, care provider at Andrews.
"We want to make sure parents know everything their children have done during the day," Andrews caregiver Francis Ward added. "Parents can give us feedback and let us know what their kids are doing at home so we can incorporate that in the classroom. It's very important for the parent to be involved."
The caregivers will be the first to say they understand parents' busy schedules, especially the morning and afternoon rush. They also know parents may not be able to spend a lot of time visiting, but there are other ways to get involved.
"We are trying to get parents more involved through the parent advisory board," said Linda Tully, child development center director at Anacostia Naval Air Station, D.C. "We're looking into some ways of bringing parents in. Maybe some can get extra time at lunch to come in and spend time with their child." There's nothing that helps a child's self esteem like Mommy and Daddy coming in and reading something to the children, she said.
"We need you. Your kids need you" is the motto of the Andrews Parent Advisory Board, Smejkal said, but it could be the motto for any military center.
Parent advisory boards are becoming regular fixtures at most military child development centers. While initially parents may see the monthly meetings as gripe sessions, they'll quickly learn there's a higher agenda and benefit in attending.
The boards are a great way to form partnerships between parents and center staff as well as being a forum for parents to share concerns with those who can make changes, Tully said.
Parents, caregivers and the center director attend most meetings. They normally last an hour or less and, like most meetings, cover old and new issues. The Andrews board encourages parents to voice their concerns prior to the meeting so staff can have time to get the answer and other information to them.
Parents can voice concerns to the board three ways. A "concern box" is checked before meetings so board members can talk to the director and get answers. There's a bulletin board where parents can write and post questions they want answered at the meeting. The third way is to just bring them up in the meeting, Smejkal said. Meeting minutes are published and distributed to all parents.
Parents don't need to wait until a board meeting to voice concerns, though. "I encourage people to bring issues to me ASAP instead of waiting for a board meeting," Tully said. And they do. She said parents often drop in to talk to her about concerns, problems and policies.
"We ask parents, please don't leave here if you have a concern. Stop by, let us know. If you're angry, let us know," she said. "Sometimes there's something we need to change. Sometimes we maybe didn't communicate as well as we could. That's very important to keep communication open."
Parent advisory boards are more than liaisons between parents and center staff. Many times, they are directly involved in fixing problems. Parental concerns range from fees to menus to parking to even sand.
Sand is a popular playground surface, Tully said, because it's soft for kids who may fall and it's relatively inexpensive. For curious parents who have to clean the children and their clothes, though, "sometimes why we do something needs to be explained," she said.
Sometimes explaining the whys is enough, but other times only change will do, she explained. The Anacostia center's board members are instrumental in getting things done, she said. For instance, they gathered menu ideas from a Navy nutritionist in response to parents' questions, Tully said.
Smejkal joined the Andrews parent board shortly after her daughter, Summer, started in the center's toddler program. She found it the perfect avenue to give input and also learn how the center worked. "I know more now, so when I hear people talking about military child development centers, I'm able to give an educated answer as to why it is that way," she explained.
"We're doing good things. We don't just come in and gripe for an hour and a half," Smejkal said. "We try to accomplish things."
The Andrews board recently responded to parents' concerns about the center's lunch menus. Now, the menu for the day is posted on the center's main bulletin board and, according to Smejkal, parents are happier with it. "The board also raises money for things like T- shirts for kids to wear on field trips and honoring a caregiver of the quarter," she added.
One topic the Andrews board continually works on is boosting parental involvement. "We want to get parents more involved -- get more parents in here having lunch with their children, volunteering time, all kinds of things. I foresee that happening in the next few months, Smejkal said.
The close communications between parents and staff distinguish the Andrews and Anacostia centers as high-quality programs, according to standards set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The association administers the nation's best-known accreditation program for early childhood schools and child care centers.
That the Andrews and Anacostia centers are accredited is not unique -- about 89 percent of all DoD child development centers have earned accreditation. DoD aims for all to be fully accredited by 2000.