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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Baby Gator to undergo renovation, expansion to address waitlist

Some student-parents say more square footage isn’t enough

As Baby Gator’s waitlist has reached over 300 families, the on-campus child care center will undergo a twofold expansion and renovation.

Baby Gator’s Lake Alice location will undergo an expansion, with construction projected to be completed in August. This comes alongside a large recruitment effort of educators, as the team hopes to open up 50 to 70 additional spots to UF-affiliated families by adding five classrooms.

After the expansion and renovation is complete, all three locations — Lake Alice, Newell Drive and Diamond Village — could serve up to 370 students, Baby Gator Director Stacy Ellis said.

“We are also unique and special because we support the UF community,” Ellis said. Beyond providing child care for UF-affiliated families, Baby Gator works to support UF departments for various research and observation projects.

Part of Baby Gator’s expansion goals are to reduce the size of its waitlist, Ellis said.

The waitlist for Baby Gator, currently at around 300 people, requires a $100 nonrefundable application fee and has a wait time of over two years. Once a student is enrolled, there’s a one-time $250 per child registration fee and an additional $100 annual supply fee.

Baby Gator is certified for the early learning coalition waiver, which provides students with a voucher for reduced-cost child care based on household income. The program also offers the federally funded Child Care Access Means Parents in School grant, which offsets the costs of child care tuition to low-income student-parents.

Baby Gator differentiates itself through its play-based approach and involvement in experiential learning, such as campus walks.

“They’re out experiencing the world because the best way that they learn is through those natural experiences,” she said. “It’s a pretty special place.”

Baby Gator is also cross-disciplinary, interacting with colleges across campus such as the College of Medicine and the College of Agriculture. Baby Gator has over 150 student volunteers, who often transition to substitute or full-time teaching, Ellis said.

“You want to meet need where you can,” Ellis said. “This is going to help meet some of that need, but not all of that need.”

Baby Gator employs about 40 full-time teachers and 25 student teachers between its Newell Drive and Diamond Village locations while the Lake Alice location is closed, and is planning to add an additional 25 staff members with the expansion and recruitment effort. 

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Within this effort, Baby Gator targets early childhood education graduates, regularly uploads job postings and attends job fairs.

Baby Gator is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has stricter teacher-to-student ratios than Florida standards. The required ratio for Florida for two-year-olds is 1:11, whereas the NAEYC requirement is 1:6.

But some worry hiring new employees might be difficult — after 2020, the childcare sector lost 9.7% of its workforce, with low pay and challenging work environments cited as reasons for its shrinkage. 

Herman Knopf, a senior research scientist at UF’s Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, said issues with retention in child care date back decades and have been worsened by economic hardship. Child care typically requires low entry skills, Knopf said, and similar low-skill occupations are dramatically increasing their starting wages to attract employees.

“You can see ‘warehouse staff’ at Amazon for $17 an hour or ‘lead teacher in a preschool’ for $12.50, $13 an hour,” he said. “You’re going to explore the warehouse job.”

Child care is challenging because it’s costly, Knopf said, but young families can’t afford to pay the full price of high-quality services.

“The constraints of the child care operators are that they can't charge for … services that no one can afford,” he said. “Because personnel is their highest cost driver, it creates a situation where teachers are not compensated in a way that is going to attract a lot of folks into this occupation or this line of work.”

In his research, Knopf found different retention strategies used to retain child care workers, such as professional development opportunities — one aspect Baby Gator prides itself on, Ellis said.

“They're involved in research … in their classrooms, they’re presenting at conferences, they’re learning, which then, in turn, helps the children because they’re being exposed to all these different things,” Ellis said.

Caroline Wheeler-Hollis, a 21-year-old UF English junior who works as a floating pre-kindergarten teacher at Gainesville’s Cedarville Global Community School, said she reached out to Baby Gator before accepting a job from Cedarville, but it wasn’t hiring part-time then. 

Burnout is frequent within child care, she said, and she’s noticed high turnover rates at many preschools across Alachua County. 

During her first weeks at Cedarville, she drove home in silence and would fall asleep at 9 p.m., she said, just because of how tiring the job was.

Wheeler-Hollis declined any jobs at $11 to $12 per hour because of how exhausting the profession can be.

“If you're not taking care of your employees, then you're not going to retain your employees,” Wheeler-Hollis said.

Baby Gator’s average salary is $15 to $20 an hour based on education and experience, offering benefits like 15 days of paid leave, paid holidays, health insurance and continuing education scholarships.

For some student-parents, Baby Gator is not doing enough about the waitlist.

UF first-year law student Aubrey Mys, 22, has a 3-year-old child enrolled in the Baby Gator at Diamond Village program. 

She joined the waitlist as an undergraduate student in 2020 when she was eligible for student-reduced costs under the early learning coalition waiver. However, once she began law school, she said, she became ineligible for fee reduction unless she worked more than 20 hours a week.

“While I couldn't really continue my education because they weren't willing to work with me, I had to work in addition to going to law school to afford child care,” she said.

Mys began working 20 hours a week to get partial coverage, which made Baby Gator far more affordable than her other options, she said. The program is hands-on, Mys said, and she hopes UF will continue to strengthen what it offers. 

“The need is definitely there,” she said. 

Looking for child care resources in Gainesville, 37-year-old UF business senior Mehr Kashmiri found Baby Gator to be the most affordable option. But with the length of the waitlist, Kashmiri was deterred from signing up.

The financial strain caused Kashmiri to change her minor and her major tracking. UF should invest more in student-parents, she said. Some clubs have denied her from attending events when Kashmiri was unable to secure child care or babysitting.

“I was the only one at Career Fair with a stroller and a baby,” she said.

Kashmiri believes the current expansion isn’t enough to meet the demand of parents on the waitlist, she said.

“If they're so full that students can't take advantage of it, what's the point?” she said.

Contact Peyton at Follow her on Twitter @peytonlharris.

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Peyton Harris

Peyton Harris is a first-year English major and the News Assistant for The Alligator. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and spends her free time re-listening to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and binging Criminal Minds.

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