Running a Home-Based Preschool Is Tough, and Support Is Meager

Early Learning

Running a Home-Based Preschool Is Tough, and Support Is Meager

By Rachel Burstein and Wade Tyler Millward     Nov 5, 2019

Running a Home-Based Preschool Is Tough, and Support Is Meager
Cleo Escamilla, a new employee at a home-based preschool in El Sobrante, Calif., helps Finn, a boy enrolled in the school, put on his shoes before going outside.

EL SOBRANTE, Calif. — Training day at Rachel Bolden-Kramer’s home-based preschool. Her two newest employees gather around a snack table outside Bolden-Kramer’s two-story home. The hollers of eight children echo from her makeshift backyard playground.

It’s a cool morning in the three-square-mile town of nearly 13,000 people about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. This training comes at an urgent time—Bolden-Kramer is eight months pregnant and plans to cut back her schedule until the baby comes. One of her new employees replaces a woman who quit earlier in the month.

Bolden-Kramer, 35, introduces her new employees to folders of licensing documents, incident reports and forms that identify who can pick up the enrolled children. She quizzes them on which students have food sensitivities and where to find supplies in the house in case of injury. “I’m so happy to have you,” she tells them. “I know we’re going to do great.”

Rachel Bolden-Kramer listens to Isaac, a boy enrolled in her home-based preschool, read from a book documenting the children’s activities. Credit: Wade Tyler Millward / EdSurge

Finding and training new teachers is just one of the many challenges for business owners of licensed home-based preschools like Bolden-Kramer. They also face financial obstacles related to making payroll and managing startup and maintenance costs—Bolden Kramer supplies everything from pencils and paper to toys and cribs. And licensing paperwork piles up from the moment someone decides to open a preschool in their home.

Companies and organizations exist to help preschool owners manage payroll, develop education programs and advertise to families. Bolden-Kramer benefits from the support of Wonderschool, a company that helps educators tackle some of these challenges in exchange for a cut of revenue.

However, whether a business owner of a home-based preschool leverages support from an organization or go it alone, the journey is complicated.

First Steps Include Inspections

Before home-based preschools even open for business, business owners must navigate a licensing process that varies from state to state. While sometimes onerous for providers to navigate, licensing requirements are designed to keep children safe.

In California, where Bolden-Kramer is based, owners must pay for and attend an online or in-person orientation, submit extensive forms along with a nonrefundable fee for the license application and undergo a pre-licensing home inspection.

The inspections continue long after the preschool opens its doors. According to state records, since becoming licensed in February 2017, Bolden-Kramer has had four visits from state inspectors to the house where she and her assistants typically teach 12 children. This is the same home where she eats, sleeps and raises her 5-year-old daughter and, soon, her second child.

During the visits, an inspector makes sure preschoolers are kept from the kitchen where she makes their vegetarian snacks. He or she checks for fencing to keep children off her deck and contained in her backyard away from neighbors and the road. The inspector notes that toxins and hazardous items are labeled and unavailable to the children, that smoke detectors work and that no toys are broken or harmful.

Child immunization records, employee background checks, parent rights forms, facility rosters and disaster drill logs are among the stacks of paperwork inspectors check—hence their importance during new employee training. Violations come with citations, fines and in some cases license suspension or revocation.

Cleo Escamilla, center, feeds Finn, left, and Kauê snacks at Bolden-Kramer’s home-based preschool in California. Credit: Wade Tyler Millward / EdSurge

Part Teacher, Part Executive

Home-based preschool operators straddle the business side and the teaching side. In addition to administrative challenges, the day-to-day experience of working with young children—while rewarding—is also exhausting. They aren’t always able to take time off, especially because they have to maintain a particular student-to-teacher ratio and don’t always have support staff.

Bolden-Kramer’s preschool, for example, has two full-time employees and three part-timers. If she gets sick, wants to take a few days off, or requires time off for something longer term—say, maternity leave—she still needs to meet state staffing ratio rules for a large home-based provider license. Those rules say a licensed provider and an assistant can oversee 12 children, including no more than four infants. Bolden-Kramer staggers her employees’ schedules to help maintain the required ratio. But she says it’s still a challenge.

How typical is Bolden-Kramer’s arrangement? Limited data exists on the home-based preschool workforce as a whole, since home-based programs aren’t always required to report information about their operations. Scant or inconsistent requirements to become a home-based childhood educator exist state by state.

The data that does exist show an overwhelmingly female, racially diverse and poorly compensated workforce. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, reported in 2018 that self-employed home-care providers are the lowest-paid educators in early childhood education—a field already among the lowest-paid professions—with a national median hourly wage of $10.35.

In California, the median wage for child care workers was $12.29 in 2018, up 3 percent since 2015. Bolden-Kramer pays her teachers $15 an hour to compete with preschools in nearby cities such as Richmond and El Cerrito, where that is the legal minimum wage.

Challenges Cross State Lines

YERINGTON, Nev. — While salary, licensing and other requirements vary regionally, the challenges of home-based preschools cross state lines. In Yerington, Nev., 71 miles outside of Reno, former teacher JoElla Whitesides has also made the journey to business owner.

At Building Blocks Daycare, eight preschoolers sit around a red table shaped like half a circle, giving Whitesides—“Miss Well” to the children—a prime view of each child. She uses this setup as a tactic to curb disruptions and maintain students’ interest in her lessons.

JoElla Whitesides teaches children the alphabet in her home-based preschool in Nevada. Credit: Wade Tyler Millward / EdSurge

A boy and a girl sit at high-chairs minded by Whitesides’ assistant teacher, while an infant sleeps in a self-rocking crib. The living room is adorned with spiders, witches and paper-plate pumpkins made by the kids in anticipation of Halloween. Unlike Bolden-Kramer, Whitesides does not use a third-party organization for administrative support. One of the few instances she uses technology is when she plays songs off YouTube for the children.

Many of the children’s parents grew up with Whitesides’ own adult-aged kids in the 30-square-mile desert town of 3,000 people. Whitesides, 56, taught K-8 special education for 24 years and opened Building Blocks in 2012. One of the few licensed preschools in her area, she saw a need for her services even after her retirement from public schools. “We’re one big family,” says Whitesides.

Like Bolden-Kramer, Whitesides had a process to complete before opening her preschool. In Nevada, preschool operators must complete online training and pass a background check.

When state inspectors visit Whitesides’ house, they review stacks of paperwork including a log of daily reports detailing when children have eaten and been changed. Inspectors check that cribs for children 6 months and younger are built with vertical slats no more than 2⅜ inches apart, that napping children are checked on regularly and that staff and children’s names are logged on daily sign-in sheets. They also make sure food is not used as a prize for good behavior or academic achievement.

Nevada inspectors also ensure that Whitesides’ curriculum includes literacy, math, science, social studies, creative expression, arts, health and safety in addition to fostering children’s social, emotional, physical, linguistic and cognitive development.

Teacher Sam Morrison helps Sophia, a girl enrolled at Whitesides’ home-based preschool in Nevada, read from a book she colored. Credit: Wade Tyler Millward / EdSurge

Not Easy to Serve All Learners

Both Whitesides and Bolden-Kramer want to serve children in their community, regardless of their parents’ income level. But that’s a challenge. Low-income families often rely on child care subsidies from the government to foot the bill of preschool. Whitesides and Bolden-Kramer have found that these subsidies require a significant amount of extra paperwork, that they may not cover the full cost of care and that payments can take too much time to arrive.

Typically, subsidy payments are lower than the full cost of tuition, and providers are only compensated for the number of days that a child is in attendance. So if a student stays home sick, the home-based provider is out of luck. As a result of such challenges, Whitesides only serves one family that pay with subsidies.

Larger providers are better positioned to absorb the cost of offering subsidies. That cost is offset by the payments received from other families. In addition, larger providers need to fill more spots, and a spot with a subsidy brings in more money than an empty spot.

Four of Bolden-Kramer’s families pay with state subsidies. Two have agreements to pay her a reduced tuition, meaning they pay less than full tuition but much more than someone with a subsidy.

When it comes to families paying full tuition, home-based providers can also have problems. Providers rely on regular payments for their own livelihood and can be in a tough spot when families don’t pay on time. If one of Whitesides’ families doesn’t pay the tuition they owe, for example, it’s hard for her to recoup that expense. She still has a business to run.

“I don’t want to chase my paycheck,” Whitesides says. “I’m taking care of your most prized possession. Think of me as a bill.”

Isaac, left, and Caden, two children enrolled in Rachel Bolden-Kramer’s home-based preschool in California, talk in a makeshift playground outside Bolden-Kramer’s house. Credit: Wade Tyler Millward / EdSurge

At Whitesides’ preschool, the former teacher allows the children into the makeshift playground in her backyard, filled with toys purchased and donated. She’s thought about when she’ll actually retire and stop her day care. She doesn’t need the money—her husband is paid well enough as a railroad engineer. But between the arts projects that decorate her walls, breaking up fights in her makeshift backyard playground and calming children until smiles replace their tears, she says she’s found her calling.

Back at Bolden-Kramer’s preschool, the expectant mother wonders if she’d make more money as a consultant, helping others with her knowledge of child care and healthy eating. Even with an outside service that assists with administrative duties, her kitchen counter can sometimes become host to mounds of paper reminders, sign-in sheets, calendars and instructions to her employees.

And yet, she loves working with children and families in need. She succeeded in finding a business that lets her spend time with her daughter and pursue her passion for writing at the same time.

Feeling ill, she heads up the stairs onto her second floor, a space off limits to the kids. She lies down before her scheduled midwife appointment. Outside, her two new employees play with the children, pushing them on the swings and kicking around a soccer ball.

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