Hardly a child noticed when three of the Defense Logistics Agency’s Child Development Centers went from being contractor-operated to government-run in 2017. Minus a few new toys and fresh paint, most things stayed the same, including the staff.
And that’s just what parents like Anastasia Prado of DLA Energy wanted.
“The CDC teachers genuinely love our children, and they’re the ones who raise them when we’re at work,” she said. “They teach them to use the bathroom and kiss their boo-boos, so it was really important to me and a lot of the other parents to make sure they were going to be able to stay on”.
Morale, Welfare and Recreation representatives who oversaw the centers shared parents’ concern.
“It can be traumatic to a young child to have someone in such a primary role change, so it was critical that we put everything in place to make sure the same faces showed up the day we reopened as government-operated,” said Lauren Langhan, a management analyst for MWR’s Child and Youth Program.
All 192 contracted employees were given the chance to apply noncompetitively for government positions. Two years later, most of those same caregivers and teachers continue to provide structure and guidance to the children of DLA employees.
The rising cost of contractor-run centers and limited ability to make on-the-spot improvements led DLA leaders to convert the last of the agency’s contracted centers. The center in Columbus, Ohio, held a grand opening signaling its conversion in February 2017. Centers in Richmond, Virginia, and Fort Belvoir, Virginia, followed in April and June 2017.
The benefits of having all five centers under government operation — the other two were already government-run — far outweigh the struggles of the transition, said Blanche Ostrosky, MWR staff director for DLA Installation Operations. Standardization across all the centers, which collectively provide care for 606 children ages 6 weeks through 5 years, has brought the staff together, particularly as they work toward improving care and expanding training opportunities for teachers.
“A lot of our line-level employees didn’t have an opportunity for training, so we opened a new facility in Richmond. We kicked things off at a basic level on what MWR is as a whole and how we support the warfighter so they could truly understand the purpose of what they’re doing,” Ostrosky said.
Since the first classes commenced in October, more than 200 teachers have completed courses on customer service and basic financial management for activities like the CDCs, which are funded by user fees or other means instead of congressional appropriations.
Being government-operated also gives staff the flexibility to implement changes, such as the recent rollout of a new child-abuse risk-assessment tool that identifies conditions, practices, work climates and other factors that could pose a threat to the safety, health or wellness of the children or staff.
“Before, we’d have to go through contracting officials and maybe have a contract modification written just to implement a new initiative or something that came down from the Department of Defense,” Langhan said. “Now we can send out a memo for record signed by leadership and immediately start making process improvements” for things like kitchen upgrades and laundry-room expansions.
Switching from contractor-operated administrative systems to DoD’s Child and Youth Management System was one of the biggest and most time-consuming challenges during the transition, she added. The online database compiles registration data and billing information, as well as shot records and health assessments.
“It took a lot of effort to get folks trained and get all the information loaded into the system,” Langhan said. “But since then, we’ve also offered monthly webinars where we teach the staff on different topics and let them ask questions. Sometimes you don’t realize what issues you’ll have until you’ve actually started using the system.”
At the same time, DoD updated its training curriculum for teachers. It includes 13 topics such as safety and professionalism, plus two modules on the prevention of child abuse. The training was previously paper-based but is now provided through DoD’s Virtual Lab School.
“The website includes videos and competency assessments where the staffer is observed in the classroom to ensure they’re implementing what they’ve learned. It gives them an interactive way to learn, and it was nice that the online material became available just as we were transitioning,” Langhan said.
Instruction for the children has changed minimally since the previous contractor already used DoD’s Creative Curriculum and Gold Assessment programs created by Teach Strategies. Creative Curriculum allows teachers to adapt learning activities to children’s interests and development stages.
“The teacher may observe one of the infants is attempting to roll over but didn’t quite make it, for example. Lesson plans will then be geared toward helping the child develop that technique, as well as reaching for objects,” she said.
A drawback in becoming government-run is dwindling budgets and staffing, said Tracy Charles, director of the Columbus center.
“My biggest concern now is staffing. It was a beautiful thing to be able to go to the contractor and say, ‘Hey, you’re short staffed, take care of it.’ It used to be their responsibility to fill in the holes and hire more people,” she said. “Now, I can’t just call the contractor and make them take care of it.”
The transition did, however, lead to the hiring of four supervisory program specialists at the Columbus center.
“We now have supervisory program specialists, one each for infants, toddlers, preschool and prekindergarten. They serve as an extra layer of support for both classroom staff and management,” Charles added.
One of the best things to come of the transition is the trust and appreciation between teachers and parents, said Sarah Bladen, a supervisory program specialist who has worked at the Fort Belvoir center since it opened in 1998. When moms and dads reacted to announcements of the change with concern for those providing care, it made staff members like her realize they were valued.
“People kept coming up to us and saying, ‘I hope you’re staying, I hope you’re staying,’” Bladen said. “There was no question my mind. This is my home; I know the families. I know the kids. Why would I go somewhere else?”
Becoming government employees also gave staff access to a wider range of benefits.
“I’ve watched teachers under contract really struggle with benefits. Health insurance was often out of their reach from an affordability standpoint, but now many of them can afford it for the first time in their lives,” Charles said.
And many DLA employees consider the CDCs a job perk. Prado sometimes walks to the center to hold or nurse her 1-year-old son during lunchtime.
“I’ve had job offers from other places for more money or same or better benefits, but those places couldn’t offer me the same peace of mind I have knowing that my kids are getting an education here,” she said, adding that CDC staffs are focused on developing children’s abilities. Her 1-year-old son can already count to 10; and the older one could write before he entered kindergarten.
Though some would argue that MWR facilities such as fitness centers are more important because of the number of employees who can take advantage of them, Charles said it’s heartwarming when a family member says her staff’s care was a deciding factor in their decision to remain at DLA.
“We had a dad just the other day who said coming here is the best way to start his day because he can go to work knowing his daughter is loved and well cared for, and that he can get to her quickly if something happens from a security standpoint,” she said. “The centers make it possible for our employees to go to work and do what they have to do to support our warfighters without worry.”