Increasing professionalism is the ongoing quest at a local nonprofit.
What's surprising about the strategy is the type of organization it comes from: day care services.
Lititz-based Luthercare, known for its senior living communities, operates six child care programs throughout Lancaster and Lebanon counties. The centers also work hard to offer services at low cost or free to many families as part of its mission.
"In the field of early childhood, it's so early on in its stages of professionalism," said Stacy Lewis, executive director.
Although certification and sometimes licensing are required by the state, other quality measures for child care businesses remain voluntary, she said.
The Keystone STARS program is sponsored by the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning, awarding up to four stars for a lengthy list of quality measures achieved, said Luthercare's Samantha Gray, Lancaster County mentor and a center director.
The initiative requirements include director credentials, staff training levels and physical environment guidelines, she said.
"The STARS program was developed to take an industry that was generally being conducted in people's homes, not much like a business, and move it through the regulatory basement," Lewis said, "encompassing not just what do you do with children, but what are the sound business practices that any industry should be using to be a sustainable business in a community."
Luthercare is helping spearhead the movement for child care organizations to design strategic business models. The industry is volatile, driven by enrollment numbers to meet budgets and keep qualified staff employed, which can sometimes affect training and quality improvement, Lewis said.
The nonprofit offers a mentoring program with two staff members spending their time visiting day care centers throughout the two counties. The mentors provide training and materials for businesses with fewer than eight children in their care, Gray said.
Luthercare also is a state-designated professional development organization, offering training that counts toward state requirements.
A Luthercare employee organizes a professional development calendar that any child care provider in the two counties can utilize. The training is offered for $10 for each two-hour session, and the funds are reinvested to provide more education, Lewis said.
"Generally we offer at least 30 trainings per year. Sometimes we offer more," she said.
The child care organization also is part of a pilot cohort in northern Lancaster County exploring shared services concepts to keep costs down but increase quality, she said.
The cohort includes schools and child care and home-based centers partnering to share advertising, professional development and a substitute pool, she said.
"It's unique. There's nothing going on like this in the state. Only 20 or so exist across the nation," Lewis said. "The idea we're trying to accomplish is professional development is not an event, it's a way of life."
The second prong of Luthercare's child care division mission also continues despite challenges: to provide care regardless of anyone's ability to pay for it.
The rates at Luthercare centers are deliberately kept low to ease the burden on families, Gray said.
Some parents don't qualify for state-subsidized enrollment because of their income level, she said.
"But that doesn't mean that child care is affordable," Gray said. "We offer funding for those families," to supplement, she said.
In some cases, a family might qualify for state funding but the money from the state won't be available for several months, said Curt Evans, vice president for senior living and community services. Luthercare will fund the gap until the state system kicks in, he said.
Luthercare receives grant money from the state, United Way organizations, Lutheran churches and other sources to support its mission. However, the child care centers run at a loss every year because of the services provided for free or at a low cost, Evans said.
The child care centers offer a reasonable wage and a full complement of benefits even though about 70 percent of the children enrolled are subsidized in some way, Lewis said.
"We have the benefit in that Luthercare can help support us by keeping tuition lower and supporting the quality and still offer competitive wages and benefits," Gray said.
Child care has been part of the Luthercare vision since it began in 1949, Evans said. The original charter mentions caring for both seniors and children.
And even though providing subsidies and low-income care while also focusing on professional development keeps the division in the red each year, Luthercare will continue to support it, he said.
"Our board has stated over and over again that they're committed to child care," he said. "We're not going to run away – we're going to find a way to do it."