Charlotte Bilingual Preschool does not have a problem retaining staff and teachers, says Executive Director Banu Valladares. That’s because the staff of this five-star licensed preschool—which prepares Spanish-speaking children for success in school and life by providing superior dual-language early childhood education—is highly mission driven.
“The majority of our employees are Latinx, and they love working in the Latinx community,” says Banu, who serves as Board Secretary of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF), which runs Family Forward NC. “If they are not Latinx, they are still passionate about our mission. They still love getting Spanish-speaking children ready for kindergarten—those children in our community who have the highest need.”
However, when MECK Pre-K, a county-funded preschool program for all eligible four-year-old children in Mecklenburg County, launched in 2018, Banu says she and her board knew they were facing direct competition for talent and needed to do more to compete.
“MECK Pre-K is looking to offer universal Pre-K-in every community. They need teachers, and they need Spanish-speaking teachers, because a fourth of children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools speak Spanish. So they want to be able to serve Spanish-speaking children, and our teachers are remarkable—they’re bilingual and they’ve got the licensing and background that they need to excel,” she says.
That meant it was time to look at how Charlotte Bilingual Preschool could support its staff even more than it had before. While Bilingual Preschool previously excelled at benefits like professional development or paying for certifications and college classes, Banu says they knew they’d need more tangible benefits like health insurance and a more robust retirement plan, which the school did not offer at the time, especially because those benefits were available for MECK Pre-K employees.
Starting in 2019, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool began offering a three percent retirement match and a reimbursement plan for health insurance premiums or medical expenses. Employees receive $200 reimbursement per month. The nonprofit also raised salaries to match those of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Banu says she and her board and leadership team wanted to go further. So she used the Family Forward NC Guide to Family Forward Workplaces to determine what else she could do to help support the school’s employees and their families.
“We had an intern put together a summary (of the Guide) for us. And then I went in reviewed and made recommendations to our HR committee,” Banu says.
She says some of the suggestions in the Guide were so easy to implement that they began immediately making changes.
“We started with the benefits that did not have a major budget implication. For example, we added four hours of parental engagement leave. There’s a little bit of a cost if a teacher is out, because we’ll have to bring in a substitute. But we figured it would be so worth just doing,” Banu says.
Additionally, Banu says she added formal language to policies the school already had in place to make them more inclusive. For instance, there was already a flexible work policy, but Banu and her team ensured the language now specifically outlines their commitment to providing a flexible, family-friendly and productive environment, as well as specific mention to working off site to help with family needs during the interview and on-boarding processes.
Banu and her board also increased the number of paid time off days for teachers, which are accrued alongside vacation. Previously, teachers received seven paid time off days, but staff received 10, because staff work year-round but teaching positions are only 10-month positions.
“The studies were so clear about having 10. It is the number that people need so they can actually take care of emergencies and their health, in general. That was an easy win. And our teachers had been asking for that, but we didn’t have the right data to justify it before we had the Guide.”
Then, Banu says she lowered the number of hours employees have to work each week to receive benefits from 40 to 30. “So everybody who works regularly 30 hours a week or more has access to all of these things. Vacation is prorated, but everything else is standard.”
Next, Banu says she tackled a change with bigger budget implication: paid parental leave. But she found a cost-effective solution. Bilingual Preschool enrolled in disability insurance to cover parental leave so new mothers can stay home longer with their children following a birth or adoption. Previously, Bilingual Preschool allowed for three months of unpaid leave, but now, employees can get at least part of their leave paid with the insurance.
New mother Ana Maria Gutierrez, who started in April 2019 as a development associate, says the organizational mission is definitely what drew her to the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.
A Colombia native who immigrated to the U.S. a little over two years ago, Gutierrez was pregnant when the new parental leave policy was announced and says she was so happy for the change.
“That’s been an amazing piece of news. I want to breastfeed, and I want to have time to meet the baby and adjust to the new reality,” she says.
Gutierrez, who is on leave now, is planning to take 12 weeks’ leave. She will receive 60 percent of her salary for at least six weeks through the insurance policy the preschool now offers.
In addition to the opportunity for paid leave, the organization’s new health reimbursement program was a “great piece of news,” Gutierrez says. Though her annual health insurance is under her husband’s policy, Ana Maria says the reimbursements program has allowed her to use the birth center of her choice, because she can claim her payments for prenatal care and delivery of her son.
As with the rest of the staff, Ana Maria works at Bilingual Preschool to primarily to help drive the mission.
“We came here knowing English and having the resources. Even with the language and a visa, we struggled with a lot of things, like getting the right documents or finding a home. I can’t imagine what this would be like without the language or the network,” Ana Maria says.
However, she is grateful for the school’s commitment to offer family-friendly benefits, especially to part-time workers. Ana Maria works 30 hours a week.
“Even though I am 30 hours per week, I am receiving the same benefits. That has been so great for me as well,” she says.
Banu says she and her leadership remain committed to continuing to find ways to improve on Charlotte Bilingual Schools policies to make them more family friendly.
“We have talked about how do we make this environment more friendly if you wanted to bring a child to work? I have worked in places where you can bring the baby—babies are typically very quiet and are mostly sleeping and nursing until they become more mobile. So that can be a way that we can be super flexible,” Banu says. “We don’t have specific policies around that, because we thought it would be best to just say we are flexible and we will look at it on a case-by-case basis and adjust.”
She says the online Guide to Family Forward Workplaces was and will continue to be helpful as she looks at case studies and language for policies, along with the research and data.
And at the end of the day, Banu says she knows these policies will be able to help her attract and retain the talent she needs to meet the organizational mission.
“We deliver a superior dual language education. To be superior you need to have superior staff and good benefits,” she says.