Shirley Haswell no longer encourages coloring within the lines, and she doesn’t care if playtime leaves her young students with dirty hands and knees.

These days she notices more of the subtleties, the way children respond, and she looks for chances to help them as they play and interact, laugh and cry.

Haswell has worked with toddlers and preschoolers for 42 years, but only in the last eight has she fully realized the significance of her work: Extensive research shows that children younger than 5 are at their peak of brain development, and good teachers can foster their emotional and intellectual growth.

“Working with young children is a profession; it’s not baby-sitting,” said Haswell, director of Bright Star Learning Center, 1550 E. Prince Road. “We teach these children so much.”

To that end, the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona has teamed up with several local agencies to offer free classes, seminars and books to people working with young children. Great Expectations for Teachers, Children and Families, funded through Arizona’s First Things First’s tobacco tax funds, also links local teachers to financial aid and scholarships so they can earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. (Learn more at www.getcf.org).

During the last fiscal year, Great Expectations was awarded $1.2 million to distribute among 10 local agencies and schools, including Pima Community College, Child & Family Resources, the University of Arizona and Las Familias, which is part of Arizona’s Children Association.

Through the program, and the networking and support it provides, the number of Pima County college graduates in the field nearly doubled in five years. In 2009, the year the program started, between 22 and 25 people earned associate’s degrees in early-childhood education from Pima Community College. In May 2013, the number of graduates had risen to 47. Great Expectations also provided funds to begin a new University of Arizona master’s program in the field, and five have graduated so far.

By way of the TEACH program — Teacher Education and Compensation Helps — early educators receive financial aid to take classes tied to a child development associate’s credential or an associate’s degree, said Liz Barker Alvarez, spokeswoman for First Things First. Teachers who seek these opportunities are required to stay with their current employer for six months for a child development credential and one year for an associate’s degree. The bachelor’s program is being piloted and does not yet have a post-graduation requirement, Alvarez said.

Statewide in fiscal year 2014, nearly $2.3 million was spent on TEACH scholarships, benefiting nearly 700 teachers, Alvarez said.

Yet while early-childhood teachers are learning more, that doesn’t mean they are earning more — or, in many cases, even enough to keep them from needing food stamps to provide for their families.

A call for advocacy

In 2012, the median income for Arizona’s early-childhood teachers was $10 per hour, with Head Start teachers earning an average of $16 per hour and public preschool teachers earning $14.50 per hour, data provided by First Things First show. Of those teachers, bachelor’s degrees were held by about 31 percent of the Head Start teachers, 45 percent of public school teachers and 23 percent of those working in nonprofit schools and for-profit centers, for an average of 26 percent.

Maurice Sykes, author of “Do the Right Thing for Children” and director of the Early Childhood Leadership Institute at the University of the District of Columbia’s National Center for Urban Education, said people need to keep pushing for higher-quality early-childhood education and better pay for teachers.

“This is part of what, from a public policy perspective, we need to think about. Are we now saying school begins at 3 years of age?” Sykes said. “You have to figure out how it can become part of public policy. It’s not going to happen by happenstance.”

These are critical issues for Tucson, where 1 out of 3 children lives in poverty — and where economic development is a critical issue.

“The availability of skilled talent is always the No. 1 site-selection factor for businesses looking to expand or relocate,” said Joe Snell, president of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities. “Investments in talent development start with early education, as the foundation for long-term economic development success.”

If a city wants to grow in economic vitality, placing greater emphasis on early-childhood education is one of the best ways to start, Sykes said.

“We’ve come to learn that children are far more capable than we originally thought they were,” he said. “We know that teachers can really make a difference. And we know that the earlier we intervene, the better our chances are to close the gap, particularly with children from underresourced areas.”

Much research has been carried out about the “vocabulary gap,” which shows that by age 3, children living in poverty may hear up to 30 million fewer words than children from wealthier homes.

Only 43 percent of Arizona’s children from birth through age 5 are read to by their parents every day, with Arizona ranking 44th out of 50 states, First Things First says. And fewer than half of Arizona’s children ages 3 through 5 are enrolled in nursery school or preschool, compared with an average of 60 percent nationwide; Arizona ranks 49th out of 50 states.

Becoming a happy adult

Kathy Asendorf, owner of Gentle Hands Center for Children, said that while the vocabulary gap is a serious concern, she doesn’t want to see early-childhood educators have to focus too much on outcomes.

“I am concerned that academics would become the main focus for young children, and that they would leave out the social-emotional aspect of it, which I think is really an important part of early-childhood education,” said Asendorf, who has been an early-childhood educator in Tucson for more than 20 years.

Over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been an explosion of research about the minds and developmental needs of young children. Researchers such as Ellen Galinsky, who wrote “Mind in the Making” and the introduction of what’s called developmentally appropriate practices have brought about much greater understanding.

Galinsky outlines seven essential skills each young child should learn from parents and in schools. They are: focus and self-control; perspective taking; communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and self-directed, engaged learning.

Jenny Barber Douglas, director of Second Street Children’s School, says teaching Galinsky’s skills to children as they play is ideal, and most natural for young, imaginative minds.

“So much happens in the growth and development of the young child’s mind from birth to age 8,” Douglas said. “We really need to jump on these growing minds and serve them as best we can as early childhood educators.”

National researcher Ellen Booth Church summarizes what seems to be the core: If you want children to become happy adults and enthusiastic learners, you must first tend to their social and emotional development.

Angela Urbon-Bonine said Second Street Children’s School prepared her oldest daughter well for elementary school.

“She has a real love for learning and school that is really apparent, and I certainly credit that to excellent early-childhood experiences,” Urbon-Bonine said of her third-grader. Her 5-year-old is still at the preschool and is doing equally well. “Kids should be free to learn through play, to be in the dirt and run and explore.”

But high quality often means high cost. Urbon-Bonine and her husband spent what amounted to a second mortgage when both daughters attended the school. And while Urbon-Bonine said it was worth every cent, she is sad so many can’t afford the same quality experience. The median daily charge for child care and preschool in Arizona in 2012 ranged from $22 to $42.50 per day, depending on the age of the child, a market survey by the Arizona Department of Economic Security shows.

“There are so many people who can’t afford a mortgage payment, and certainly not a second one for their child’s education,” she said.

Waiting list for subsidies

A recent report, “Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years After the National Child Care Staffing Study,” explores the many ways early-childhood educators are critical — yet still not earning wages that allow them to stay in the field.

The report, by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, found that many who work with young children nationwide earn less than adults who take care of animals and barely more than a typical fast-food cook.

While teachers earn so little, the cost of child care is out of reach for many families. On average, it now costs Arizona’s parents roughly $7,400 to enroll a 4-year-old child in a child-care center for one year, First Things First reports. That easily eats up about 17 percent of a family of four’s annual income, and for a family living in poverty, it accounts for at least a third of its annual income.

“So many can’t access quality child care because they can’t afford it,” said Michelle Saint Hilarie, director of Southern Arizona’s Child Care Resource & Referral. She said about 45 percent of the people who call their child care hotline for advice are DES-eligible. (The hotline number is 1-800-308-9000, or learn more at www.azchildcare.org).

Currently, 663 families and 1,112 children are waiting for child-care subsidies to help pay for child care in Pima County, said Taysa Peterson, spokeswoman for Arizona’s Department of Economic Security. Statewide, 2,827 families and 5,023 children are on the waiting list for funds. The number of Arizona children receiving subsidies has dropped dramatically in the last past five years after the state froze enrollment and created a waiting list in 2009.

Employers like Gentle Hands owner Asendorf say they don’t charge anywhere close to what it costs to care for a child because few could afford it. “I charge $640 per month for my toddlers, and I think that’s the medium to low end of what people charge,” she said.

But charging less affects what she can pay her teachers. “For us to be able to raise the teacher’s pay, it either has to come from tuition or from DES raising their rates to be more commensurate with the cost of child care actually is,” she said.

At Second Street Children’s School, Douglas offsets shortfalls by holding five annual fundraisers for health insurance — the school pays 50 percent — as well as 18 to 20 hours of professional development per teacher. Douglas also strives to give 2 to 3 percent annual raises. Lastly, she provides scholarships for one or two children through the Julia Butler Scholarship for Single Working Parents, named after her predecessor and longtime director of the school.

Modest pay raises

Asendorf has also found a way to pay her teachers a little more — and offer them money toward insurance policies — through a First Things First program called Quality First. By following the program’s guidelines, Asendorf’s school has earned a high Quality First rating, and so she has been awarded eight scholarships for low-income families. The extra compensation has allowed her to provide raises because the scholarship pays about $940 per toddler.

But even with the raises, Asendorf says it’s not enough.

“If you’re doing the job well and you’re doing it right, you’re definitely taxed afterward,” said Daniel Avila, 32, who has worked for Asendorf for several years. “I don’t think people understand how much goes into this job.”

Avila would like to have more money to travel or take some classes, for example, but finds he is always trying to save up for every little thing.

“With the things I want to accomplish in my life, I may have to find myself a different job that is a little more structured,” he said. “But to leave it for a job that doesn’t have as much meaning, just more compensation, is unfortunate.”

Gabrielle Morse, 25, has been teaching with Asendorf’s school since June and says she can’t imagine doing anything else. She has her bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University in nonprofit management and previously worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts, but longed for more time with children.

Yet Morse said that if she stays in the field, she fears she will eventually need to leave Arizona for a state that pays teachers better.

“I would do this for free if I could — that’s how much I love it and how important I believe it is,” she said. “At the same time, it is exhausting and demanding, both emotionally and physically, and teachers should be compensated for what they do.”

All young children who are in out-of-home care before kindergarten deserve dedicated teachers, and teachers engaged in ongoing education, said Naomi Karp, director of early childhood professional development with the United Way of Tucson.

“At a minimum, if we want all children to have the same opportunities and chances, we need to have much higher standards,” she said.

Early childhood educators might work in a nonprofit school, a for-profit center, a home-care setting, or teach in a public school or the federally funded Head Start program. In most, Karp said, wages are “the 2,000-pound elephant in the room.”

Staying power

About 1,100 people — mostly women — have participated in Great Expectations so far.

“What we’re trying to do is get teachers to understand that this knowledge is something that can never be taken away from you,” Karp said. If classroom work becomes too repetitious or they want to earn more, there are other options in the field, such as policy work or administration.

Improving teachers’ education levels is also about moving forward, Karp said, despite living in a state that “doesn’t prioritize education.” The idea for now, she said, is to elevate the whole process and eventually have early childhood education recognized as vital not only for the children but for the community.

“We can’t force the issue of early-childhood education when we have all of these elementary and secondary teachers who are being throttled,” she said.

Preschool director Haswell said Great Expectations has helped her realize how crucial this time is for the children in her care. She is reaching out more to parents with tips on nutrition, parenting and child development. Two of her teachers are pursuing their associate’s degrees.

“If we have a child whose behavior is tricky, we all work together to help the child, with the teachers and the parents,” she said. “We want them to be on the same page we’re on. We’ve made big strides, and I think Great Expectations is a big part of that.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@azstarnet.com or 806-7754.