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Learning Grove raises early childhood educators' profiles with better pay, benefits

'They are the brain architects'
Nadine Thompson-Triblett, left, works with a student at Learning Grove's East Walnut Hills location.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-08 19:47:48-05

CINCINNATI — Nadine Thompson-Triblett always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

As a student at Cincinnati State, she got a summer job teaching preschool in 1996. She fell in love with the work and has been doing it ever since.

“Not only do I get to be like an English teacher, it’s like a jack of all trades,” Thompson-Triblett said. “I get to be a musician. I get to be a cook. I get to be a scientist. I get to be kind of like a mathematician. So it’s like all the things I ever thought about being when I was a kid, I get to do that now and share that love of learning with the children.”

But for most of the more than 25 years Thompson-Triblett has been teaching, her pay has fallen far short of her passion for the profession.

“When I started in early childcare, I think it was like $4.75 an hour,” she said. “It wasn’t until maybe year 15 that I started being paid double digits.”

That is finally changing for her.

Nadine Thompson-Triblett smiles in this photo. She has curly dark hair and is wearing glasses and a red Learning Grove t-shirt.
Nadine Thompson-Triblett

Learning Grove, where Thompson-Triblett has worked for nearly 15 years, has raised the minimum wage it pays all its teachers, created a career ladder to help teachers earn more over time and added a free childcare benefit for the educators who work there.

“Right now I’m proud to say that no teacher is making less than $13 an hour, and we’re on our way to $15 an hour,” said Shannon Starkey-Taylor, Learning Grove’s CEO. “Ninety percent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of five. We believe they are the brain architects setting the child off for lifelong success.”

Early childhood educators’ pay hasn’t reflected the importance of that work, however, Starkey-Taylor said, and Learning Grove is determined to address that discrepancy.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “But we’re really committed.”

Raising early childhood educator pay is not only a question of properly compensating brain architects, Starkey-Taylor said, although that would be reason enough.

The COVID 19 pandemic also has made clear that early childhood educators are the workforce behind the workforce, she said, and working parents need quality childcare with committed, trained professionals teaching their kids.

‘We’ve got to speak the truth’

“It doesn’t feel good to say this, but you know we’ve got to speak the truth,” Starkey-Taylor said. “Some (teachers) were making $9 and $10 an hour. And then the national average is $11, $11.62. So some were not even making $12 an hour.”

Now many teachers at Learning Grove are making well over $13, based on their education and experience, she said, and many got large raises to get to that point.

She noted that about half of early childhood educators receive government subsidies and said that Learning Grove teachers in the past had turned down raises because the small increases would have resulted in losing government benefits worth more.

Shannon Starkey-Taylor smiles in this portrait. She has long, straight brown hair and is wearing a blue top and silver, jeweled necklace.
Shannon Starkey-Taylor

“They also make the same amount of money as parking lot attendants,” she said. “We appreciate parking lot attendants. But, again, there’s that discrepancy of it being a workforce issue, a brain issue. We believe it’s a moral imperative.”

Learning Grove is funding the raises, she said, with philanthropic support, funds from Cincinnati Preschool Promise and through higher provider reimbursement rates from Ohio and Kentucky for families who qualify for government-subsidized childcare.

The organization also initiated some tuition increases for parents, Starkey-Taylor said.

“Childcare has razor-thin margins,” she said. “It depends on more than one funding source, and we obviously can’t pass all that on to parents.”

It’s too soon to say whether the higher pay and added benefits will help reduce turnover, Starkey-Taylor said, but she’s betting it will.

The national average for turnover in the industry is 33%, she said, and that’s not good for childcare businesses or families.

“We really believe along with the increase in pay and the increase in recognition comes an increase of respect and dignity that they will feel,” she said. “I believe we’ll have a higher retention rate simply because they know it’s front and center in our strategic plan, and they actually see us moving into action and seeing their paychecks increase and their benefits increase.”

‘This is my mission, my ministry’

In addition to the free childcare benefit, she said, Learning Grove also has coaches to support teachers, give them advice on curriculum and other classroom issues and help teachers with an additional perspective on how they’re interacting with children and families.

“We need our teacher to feel really good and feel really engaged and not feel kind of down in the dumps,” Starkey-Taylor said. “If you’re not making a livable wage and you don’t have enough support, you’re probably going to look for another job. And we want to make sure that they stay with us and not go to Target.”

Thompson-Triblett said she earns more than $15 an hour now, and she’s grateful to work for an organization that is following through on its commitments to its teachers.

“For me, it’s not about the money. It’s about a job that I really love to do,” she said. “I feel like this is my mission, my ministry to be here for these children and these families, because they really need it.”

An early childhood educator at Learning Grove sits with three students as they play a game.
An early childhood educator at Learning Grove sits with three students as they play a game.

Still, the bigger paycheck has been a big help to Thompson-Triblett’s own family, like covering the costs for her son’s wrestling activities in high school or providing her daughter with a little extra help in college when she needs it.

Then there are the big family goals.

“It gives us a little more freedom to think about, you know, like getting a house. We’re really considering doing that now,” she said. “We’ve purchased a car a few years ago, so being able to have that almost paid off – my husband and I are like, ‘Yes!’”

The higher pay has come after years of having friends urge her to leave the field for a more lucrative career – advice that Thompson-Triblett said she never considered following.

“I stayed in this game because I was dedicated, because I love working with early childhood,” she said. “The pay increase at this point in time is just a bonus. I just praise God for that because it helps me to have a little bit more light in my future about what I can do in regards to my family.”

Learning Grove, Starkey-Taylor said, hopes the moves will lead to more light for the entire profession.

More information is available online about Learning Grove and its employment opportunities.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.