A woman in a long, printed skirt standing next to a wall with a mural holds open a red door.
Rochelle Wilcox holds open the door for a student at the Wilcox Academy of Early Learning on North Broad Street in New Orleans, Louisiana on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

As Rochelle Wilcox welcomed late arrivals to the Wilcox Academy of Early Learning one December morning, she admitted she could no longer remember the name of every child who passed through the doors of the blue house on North Broad Street in the 7th Ward.

Her staffers, the women who work with children in the classroom as Wilcox once did, have reassured her — that’s a sign of success.

More than two decades ago, Wilcox started out as a pre-K teacher in New Orleans. Now, she runs three stand-alone early learning centers across the city aimed at ensuring young children get high-quality care and education, with a focus on low-income families of color. And she’s eyeing a new location through a partnership with Southern University at New Orleans.

In an industry where many of her peers run on razor-thin profit margins or even deficits, Wilcox has emerged as a local success story. Still, she said, it often feels like she’s treading water.  

“It is absolutely a precarious position,” she said.

The margin for error, however, may be broadening a bit in New Orleans, where a recently passed 20-year property tax to fund an estimated 1,000 early childhood seats for low-income families could help child care centers like Wilcox’s better balance their books. The tax takes effect in 2023. 

“It’s going to be good in Orleans Parish,” Wilcox said.

The $21 million expected to flow next year into the City Seats program, which currently provides free care for about 400 infants and toddlers, has been framed as an unprecedented investment in the city’s youngest residents. The program will pay providers $12,000 per child per year, with additional funding going toward grants that allow providers to expand capacity by upgrading facilities and making other improvements, things that were more difficult when operators were just struggling to survive. Centers contracting with City Seats will also have to follow the city’s living wage ordinance by paying covered employees at least $15 an hour in 2023.

By providing a measure of financial stability that rarely exists in the industry, the millage also eases the economic pressures of participating child care providers, most of which are small businesses owned by women of color, according to Agenda for Children, the statewide advocacy group contracted to run City Seats.

“It provides consistency in terms of resources that allows business owners and educators to make decisions around growth,” said Jen Roberts, Agenda for Children’s CEO. ”If you know you’re going to have a certain number of students, and you’re going to have them each year … you can start to plan in a way that perhaps you haven’t been able to in the past.”

‘I was broke’

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the challenges facing the child care sector in New Orleans and nationwide. Business owners can only cut costs by so much, given regulations that dictate staff-to-child ratios. Inflation has pushed up prices on everything from food to diapers. Wilcox estimated that her costs run from $300 to $350 a week per child. 

Parents can’t afford those costs, with many working families borrowing money or sacrificing household necessities to pay for child care, according to a 2021 survey by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. 

“What ends up happening is that this has been subsidized by the inexpensive, underpaid labor of mostly women — in New Orleans, mostly Black women, frankly,” said Teresa Falgoust of Agenda for Children. “It’s fundamentally a market failure.”

The facade of a blue house with two street-facing windows and stairs leading up to a red door. A sign against the fence bordering the house identifies it as "Wilcox Academy."
The exterior of the Wilcox Academy of Early Learning on North Broad Street in New Orleans, Louisiana on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

The economics of the industry have always been tough for operators like Wilcox, a Black New Orleans native who started her first center in 2006. That summer, when her family returned to the city after Hurricane Katrina, she rented out a house on Broad Street. One month and 34 kids later, the center was at capacity, she said. 

“And I was broke.”

Her husband, then working at the nonprofit Boys Town Louisiana, cashed out his 401(k) to get operations off the ground. Wilcox borrowed money from family members; her father, a contractor, did repairs for the facility. Inconsistent cash flow meant electricity bills were pitted against paydays, with Wilcox asking staff not to cash their checks right away. At the time, Wilcox’s business acumen was so limited a teller at her credit union had to walk her through how to fill out a deposit slip, she recalled. 

For years, Wilcox didn’t pay herself, she said, and as recently as 2019, she made $12 an hour. To make ends meet, Wilcox took home leftovers from meals served at the center to feed her own family for dinner. At one point, she tried to apply for food stamps. Her accountant suggested she find another line of work.

Over time, Wilcox learned to “braid” revenue from different sources — parents who pay out of pocket, an assortment of government-funded programs and grants she has secured to fund other costs, like curriculum, facilities and professional development for her teachers. She now relies upon more stable sources of funding, like the federal Early Head Start and the City Seats program, that allow her to make more informed budgeting decisions.

Now, the majority of her seats are publicly subsidized. In New Orleans, that means Wilcox primarily serves low-income, Black and brown families.

In an effort to establish a career pathway for her teachers, Wilcox tries to offer competitive wages and benefits, along with professional development opportunities. 

Her teachers make between $14 and $18 an hour, she said, well above the $9.13 median wage for early child care teachers across Louisiana, and the directors in charge of her individual locations draw at least a $45,000 annual salary, almost $9,000 more than the reported average statewide. Wilcox also offers her workers dental, vision and life insurance, as well as a 401(k) plan and vacation and sick time. This year, she said she’s planning on giving her employees a bonus.

Such benefits go beyond industry standard, but they still aren’t enough to attract and retain teachers. Wilcox is about seven teachers short across her three facilities, and these days her staff scrambles to cover absences. When the cook is out sick, sometimes teachers help out in the kitchen, and Wilcox herself mans the front door.

Low pay, high turnover

Even before the pandemic, the industry saw high turnover among its underpaid workers, with one report finding that about 44% of child care teachers in Louisiana leave their jobs every year, as workers in the sector struggle to pay medical bills or rent.

That turnover has accelerated since the start of the pandemic, said Wilcox, who has put thousands of dollars into recruiting efforts. A recent job fair yielded 50 interested applicants, three interviews and a single hire, added Laurena Rogers, director of the North Broad location.

The wages are higher than they were when Rogers first started at the blue house as a teacher a decade ago. Still, Rogers hears current teachers talk about their second gigs as ride-share drivers or Instacart shoppers. And working with young kids can be an all-consuming job, especially when staffing is low, Rogers said.

A woman in a yellow shirt sits facing a small child in a wooden seat, in a room with cribs and toys. A plate of food sits on top of a tray attached to the chair.
Lottie Ramos, a teacher at the Wilcox Academy of Early Learning on North Broad Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, cares for a child during lunch on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite News

“This is what I want the people on the top to know: It’s a hard job for sure,” Rogers said. “‘Cause they always get the pictures of the children smiling, and it just seems like it’s lovely and it’s all peaches and creams.”

Surveys of child care providers in Louisiana in 2020 and 2021 tracked the continuing financial fallout of COVID-19 for these centers, from closures to limited enrollment numbers to rising costs of staffing and cleaning supplies. 

Wilcox applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans that kept her afloat — but only after consulting with Loyola University’s law clinic through an initiative aimed at child care providers, many of whom were unfamiliar with having such access to capital.

She sees the City Seats expansion as a more sustainable path forward for the industry as it recovers. Though Wilcox has been a City Seats contractor since the program’s inception in 2018, she believes the program will benefit a new slate of providers that will participate in the expansion.

“That is game-changing for a lot of early learning centers that are used to doing it on their own and are not used to having guaranteed funds,” Wilcox said.

She’s also trying to share what she’s learned with others in the field — support she found hard to find when she was starting out. “Traditionally … early learning centers don’t work together, because they’re seeing each other as competition,” Wilcox said. 

The pandemic pushed Wilcox to formalize some of the relationships she had built with other providers, like Kristi Givens, who also owns and runs an early learning center in New Orleans. The pair formed the nonprofit For Providers by Providers, a collective of child care providers that offers business counseling and advocates for greater public funding.

“We are the architects of what children will learn for the rest of their lives, but we are the most underfunded sector of business,” Wilcox said. “These are small businesses, predominantly Black or brown woman-led, and because of that, we are marginalized. We are not seen because of that. People just think, oh, we’re babysitting. That is not the case.”

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...