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Ventura County

Child-Care Program a Welcome Addition to Ojai Curriculum

Family: District will offer low-cost supervision for preschool-age kids of teachers and staff.


Ojai school officials are set to launch a program this fall to provide low-cost child care and preschool specifically for its teachers and staff, becoming the first school district in Ventura County and among few in the state to offer the benefit.

Though growing numbers of employers across California are acting to make work environments more family friendly, Ojai appears to be a leader among school districts in providing on-site care, according to child care advocates and state education officials.

It may seem elementary, but employee child care has yet to become a priority for school districts, said Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers.

"There are plenty of teachers who are parents, and it would be a great help for them if they were able to drop their kids into child care right where they are," he said. "In an underfunded environment, [however,] it's not a high priority."

The need certainly exists in Ventura County, where a recent state report showed children under 5 outnumber licensed child-care slots by a 2-to-1 ratio and the average annual cost for enrolling an infant in day care is $8,690.

"We have eight to 10 people on partial leaves or working half time because of child care," said Ojai Unified School District Supt. Van Riley. "We're becoming more aware of the need out there."

A Pricey Proposition

Consider Kimberly and John Hoj.

She is a counselor and he is a teacher at Nordhoff High School in Ojai, which is among the county's priciest communities. With a 3-year-old daughter and 5-month-old twins, their day-care costs could reach $2,200 a month--more than the cost of a semester at UC Berkeley.

And that is assuming the couple can even find three day-care openings in Ojai, where waiting lists for infant care begin before children are even born.

"Just the concept of trying to pay for three kids' child care, as a public school employee, is frightening," Kimberly Hoj said.

She is on extended maternity leave from the district--a financial sacrifice the family decided to make--but said she would apply for the Ojai district's program when she returns to work part time next fall. At $75 a week per child, which is the district's proposed cost to employees, it's a deal that can't be beat, she said.

"It might permit us to pay for college," said Hoj, 32. "It might permit us to be able to do some long-range financial planning for our family. Honestly, it's very difficult to live on a teacher's salary in Ojai."

That is increasingly the case for young teachers throughout the state. In areas with sky-high housing costs, such as San Francisco, one simply cannot buy a home on $34,000 a year, Glass said.

A program to help teachers and other school employees with child-care expenses could make a difference, he said.

"Unfortunately it's not something I've heard happening in many districts," Glass said. "Ojai is certainly among the first, if not the first."

Borrowing an Idea

Riley said his inspiration for the idea came from his wife, Mary, who is working on a project funded by Proposition 10 tobacco tax money to make Ventura County a "family friendly employment zone."

Ten employers in the county--from Camarillo-based Zebra Technologies to the city of Oxnard--are receiving grants to determine their employees' child-care needs. Employers will then get technical support to devise solutions and to make those ideas a reality, Mary Riley said.

Those solutions could include on-site child-care centers, such as the ones offered by Patagonia Inc. in Ventura and Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks; subsidies for workers to use at private centers; a child-care referral system; or more flexible benefits for working parents.

"There are a whole cafeteria of options," she said.

Under Ojai's plan, an unused classroom at the district's headquarters on Ojai Avenue will become a full-day, child-care center for up to 12 children ages 2 to 5.

While their parents work in the district office or in nearby schools, the children will be supervised by a certified preschool teacher, a district administrator and at least two child development professionals, according to the plan approved by the school board last week.

Four hours out of the day--from 8 a.m. to noon--will be dedicated to preschool activities, from development of fine motor skills to beginning academics such as counting and ABCs.

The day-care portion of the program, provided from 7 to 8 a.m. and from noon to 5 p.m., will include play time and group activities, Van Riley said.

Expansion Planned

If applications outnumber available slots, a waiting list and lottery system will be developed, he said. The district hopes to expand the program to include infant care by October.

Nordhoff High teacher Ann Inman said she would jump at the chance to enroll her 3-month-old son in a less costly program when she returns to work in January.

Now, she has him on a waiting list to enroll at the Ojai Center for Children, which she said will cost $700 a month.

"I think there's an incredible need," she said. "Even more than that, if you have your children near where you work, it can make such a huge difference to being a parent and an employee. It allows you to do both jobs well."

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