MILWAUKEE — It’s billed as a path to a first job. And, sometimes, even a lifesaver.
For years, the American Red Cross has trained legions of young babysitters in the basics of child care and the entrepreneurial skills needed to build a small business.
But the price tag — more than $100 in some suburban communities — has put it increasingly out of reach for many families.
Eleven-year-old Lilia Graves of Milwaukee wasn’t deterred. She organized a yard sale outside her Riverwest neighborhood home during a recent street festival, raising $55 to defray some of her $90 fee.
But her experience raises questions about limited access to a program that could have positive impacts for families and communities if it were more widely available. And it illustrates the subtle ways in which so-called opportunity gaps emerge among students, often setting the stage for academic achievement gaps later on.
“If they could make it more affordable, I think more young people would take the class,” said Lilia’s mom, Holly Graves. “It would be a great advantage to kids and families in the city.”
Barbara Behling, spokeswoman for the Red Cross’ Wisconsin region, acknowledges that prices have risen in recent years and that cutting the cost might boost participation.
But she said the fees providers pay to offer its courses — $85 per student for the one-day babysitting class — are set at the national level, depending on what the local market will bear. It offers less-expensive online courses costing around $29, but many low-income families don’t have home computers. The Red Cross offers scholarships, as does Milwaukee Recreation, and both urged the Graves family to apply.
“Every child would benefit from this course,” said Behling, pointing to a Greenfield, Wis., boy who saved his little brother from choking last year after learning the technique in the babysitting class.
“The little girl who was having a yard sale, my gosh, we want her in the class,” she said.
The babysitting course covers a number of topics, from nutrition and age-appropriate play to basic first aid and how to start a babysitting business. And, by all accounts, Lilia is the ideal candidate.
The oldest of four — soon to be five — children, she’s great with kids and is frequently asked by neighbors if she’s available to babysit.
“I kind of wanted to learn how to do it well, so I can … help them,” said Lilia, who will be a sixth-grader at Maryland Avenue Montessori School in the fall. “I want to be, like, a person they could rely on.”
Learning soft skills
Courses like this also instill a lot of intangibles, what educators call soft skills — leadership abilities, independence, confidence — that can give kids a leg up in school, work and life. And economic barriers to programs keep some students from benefiting.
“We know from the research that there is added enrichment that comes from (summer and extracurricular) programs … and that there are setbacks for children who can’t participate,” said Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written extensively on the subject.
And there is an added benefit from those programs that translate into a job, according to Carter.
“Young people who are employed, who can find summer employment, tend to fare better than those who don’t,” she said.
At least one local rec department — in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District — provides the class below cost because leaders there see it as a public good. It’s offering six sessions this summer at $55 for residents and $83 for non-residents ($60/$90 for the three-day class).
“We see this as something that’s good for the community … more of a community service piece,” recreation manager Dustin Smith said.
The national Red Cross boosted fees on many of its training programs in 2011 as part of a plan to raise revenue and turn around the organization, which had been operating at a deficit. Behling said the organization has put more of an emphasis on online and digital resources. She said some communities have been able to lower the costs of programs by partnering with donors to pick up part of the tab.
Lynn Greb, who heads the Milwaukee Public Schools’ recreation department, said low-income families are eligible for price cuts on most of its classes. They’re not available on the Red Cross courses because of the fees charged by the non-profit. But Greb said low-income students can tap a scholarship fund, which was increased to $1,000 this year to serve more kids.
“We believe all children should have access to high-quality recreation programs,” she said.
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