How a district boosted recruitment, retention with affordable child care

Shane Robertson took a “massive pay cut” when he pivoted from working as an auto mechanic to become a teacher six years ago.

The career switch for Robertson, who now teaches automotive technology in Louisa County High School’s career and technical education program in Virginia, came at a time when he wanted to play a bigger role in the lives of his two sons. 

During those early teaching days, Robertson was paying $2,000 per month for child care — and he had to work on cars over the summer to help defray those costs.

But that wasn’t sustainable for Robertson, and it began to throw a wrench in his plan to spend more time with his family.

“The biggest problem is … I would have probably had to pick up another job due to the cost of child care,” Robertson said. If he could only stay afloat by working nights, he said, “it kind of would have defeated the purpose.”

But starting in fall 2021, he was able to more than halve that $2,000 monthly bill to just $800 by putting both of his children in Louisa County Public Schools’ preschool program, the Little Lions Learning Lab. The program for 3- and 4-year-olds enrolls children of district staff, with priority given to teachers. That meant Robertson could benefit from the program for three years total, from 2020 to 2023.

A creative way to tackle staffing woes

The program was designed as a creative solution to address teacher recruitment and retention challenges in Louisa County Schools, according to Superintendent Doug Straley. Not only does Little Lions provide much-needed child care for current teachers, but it also gives high school students hands-on teaching experience working with children enrolled in the program. 

Shane Robertson, who teaches automotive technology at Louisa County High School, stands with his family at the Little Lions Learning Lab. Both of Robertson’s sons attended the preschool program operated by Louisa County Public Schools.

Permission granted by Louisa County Public Schools


Plus, it has inspired a sizable number of students to pursue teaching, with some even returning to work at Louisa County Schools, according to Straley and Kenny Bouwens, the district’s career and technical education director. 

Little Lions Learning Lab launched in fall 2019 with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Education, Bouwens said. The on-campus program typically serves 20 children per year in the rural 5,000-student district. Tuition runs $400 per child per month in addition to a $250 annual supply fee. 

That tuition covers the staffing costs of one full-time teacher and two instructional assistants, and the supply fee takes care of materials, Bouwens said. 

Since the child care center launched, it has received several statewide recognitions, including the Innovative Practice Award from the Virginia Department of Education in 2023 and first place in the Workforce Readiness Award from the Virginia School Board Association in 2021. 

A benefit for teachers

It’s no surprise that teachers who have children would highly value their district providing child care benefits. After all, average child care costs for preschoolers run $9,120 per year, while the average teacher earns $69,544 a year – meaning child care eats up 13% of annual income.

For instance, surveys of 1,030 teachers nationwide between November 2020 and January 2021 found that teachers valued a $3,000 per child subsidy — with a $6,000 annual family cap — as much as a 10% increase in salary. However, they preferred the 10% raise if they received only a $1,500 child care benefit, according to a working paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Because districts can cap child care benefits and they are only used by a portion of teachers anyway, the study said it “is far less expensive” in the long term to subsidize up to $6,000 than to increase teacher salaries for all. 

The study also noted that even teachers ineligible for child care benefits viewed the idea positively. “One possible explanation for this result is that family-friendly policies serve as a positive signal of workplace quality,” the study said. “Another is that aspiring parents are anticipating future benefits.”

Don’t just convert a classroom

Virginia Lovison, the study’s lead author and an associate director of research and evaluation for Deloitte Access Economics, said she has heard from countless teachers who had to quit the profession because child care costs exceeded their salaries. 

“If school districts were to subsidize the cost of child care while teachers still had young children, let’s say under 5, then I suspect this would lead some teachers to recalibrate their decisions regarding whether or not it makes sense to keep teaching,” Lovision said. 

While districts can create their own child care centers, Lovison suggests school leaders first consider gauging interest among their teachers. Then, she said, it might be best to initially offer a child care subsidy or reimbursement because that option is likely more affordable for a district than building a center. 

Districts can then use participation data gleaned from those kinds of programs to help determine if an on-site child care center would be more cost effective.

A high school student works with a child enrolled in the Little Lions Learning Lab.

A Louisa County High School student interacts with a child enrolled in the Little Lions Learning Lab, a preschool program that operates at Virginia’s Louisa County Public Schools. 

Permission granted by Louisa County Public Schools


Based on his experience launching the Little Lions Learning Lab, Bouwens advises district leaders to plan carefully.

“Don’t try to just take a classroom and turn it into a day care program,” Bouwens said. “You’ve really got to think through all the aspects of running a program like this and all the staffing requirements, and have policies and procedures in place to help you navigate” any tricky situations ahead. 

For example, Little Lions has faced challenges particularly with enrollment capacity. 

Each year, the center has a waitlist of some 30 children, Bouwens said.

The program has helped to already recruit new teachers from other districts, Bouwens said. Unfortunately, however, the program is too full for those new teachers who already have children old enough to enroll.

Yet he said he’s hopeful more need will be met in the future as the district has been approved to build a new CTE center that will house a bigger space for Little Lions. “We’re really looking forward to having that done, so that we have the opportunity” to strategically recruit.

On the retention side, Bouwens said there are countless teachers like Robertson who have stayed with the district to benefit from the program. “He’s just a part of the Louisa County community and family, and that means something to our employees,” Bouwens said. “It absolutely helps us retain and recruit high-quality teachers.”