CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio – Ashley Robinson of Medina read aloud to the cooing newborn in her arms. For weeks, the 18-year-old had been in training, with the help of a real family, to become a nanny. While she'd had lots of experience watching her younger siblings, there's a world of difference between a family obligation and taking care of the everyday needs of youngsters as a chosen profession.
Oh, sure, anyone can call themselves a nanny. Bradford Gaylord, chief operating officer of the English Nanny & Governess School, maintains if "someone can chew gum and walk, they can be a nanny."
Sheilagh Roth, founder and executive director of the school in Chagrin Falls, explained there are no regulations in the U.S. for nannies. So a quarter of a century ago, the woman who was cared for by a nanny in England established the school. Students are obligated to dedicate themselves to an intensive three-month course.
Among the classes are lessons in nutrition, fire safety, dentistry, child development, safe driving, swimming, autism and special needs awareness. Students also work one full day a week doing practical work inside a home with children.
Robinson's "practicum family," as the school calls the families who provide students with real-world experience, had a baby, Nora, and a toddler, Eliza. Their mother, Dr. Jill Sangee, a pediatrician at Senders Pediatrics east of Cleveland, praised the school's program.
"The curriculum is impressive," said Sangee, who's married to Robert Mays. "They're trying to teach two years of parenting in 12 weeks. It's hard, but they are doing a good job."
Roth's husband, the late Jack J. Roth, was once department chair of history at Case Western Reserve University. As a faculty wife, she had the opportunity to draw on experts in fields such as psychology and childhood nutrition to help her develop a curriculum.
Additionally, with classes that focus on things like martial arts, pottery and equestrian safety, the staff goes beyond the basics. That's because the students often work for parents with means, people who want their children to experience it all.
During a recent visit to Stanton Stables in Newbury Township, the soon-to-be nannies received a lesson about the dos and don'ts of horses.
"They are learning how to take children to a stable and evaluate it. Is it clean? Is it safe?" said stable owner Nora Stanton.
The school, which is regulated by the Ohio State Board of Career Colleges and Schools, has found jobs for nannies or governesses (men or women with a four-year degree in addition to certification from the school) caring for children of film stars and sports figures. Even years after the students graduate, the school continues to help them find employment. But placing students has been difficult in 2009.
Prior to last year, Gaylord said, two-thirds of each class (Robinson's class had 16 students), had placements with families before graduation day. But the ailing economy put a sudden halt to that.
"In the past, we never came close to meeting the demand," he said. "What we started to do was interview as soon as we could prepare the students to do so. Not now. I'm not faulting people, but cut corners and save pennies on your house, car or going out to dinner not on your children.
"I realize it's a different world and people are doing what they have to do, but this will backfire. You can't just hire anyone to take care of your children. It's what I call dollars and no sense."
Perhaps, he surmises, since the school has placed one student from Robinson's December graduating class and others are now interviewing, 2010 will be better.
The school has a dormitory that houses 30 people. Tuition for the 12-week session is $6,900. Those who want housing pay $1,350 for a double room, or $1,650 for a private suite.
"School consumed my life, but it was worth it," Robinson said, noting that nutrition was her favorite subject.
Prior to coming to the school, the mature 18-year-old graduated from Medina High School, where she went to the Medina County Career Center and was enrolled in early childhood education. It was there that she heard Roth talk about the school. Robinson plans to return to college someday to specialize in childhood or special education. Eventually, she wants to own a day-care center.
"I have always loved children," said Robinson, who has five siblings, four of them younger than herself. "I have lots of patience and just understand kids."
Gaylord noted that for those who elect to work with children, it's not simply a "stepping stone for these students. This is their career of choice."
A family interested in hiring a graduate contacts the school and gives Gaylord basic information, such as where they live, the number and ages of the children and whether they want the nanny or governess to live in the home.
If the person is to reside in the home, Gaylord will ask for private accommodations. If the nanny is expected to live off-site, he will ask the family to either provide the housing or an allowance for it. The family completes an application with more detail.
The applications are presented to students enrolled in the program, and the opening is also posted on the school's Web site. When there is a mutual interest, the candidate goes to the family's home, the potential employer paying expenses.
The school negotiates for the students something that's been brutal with the recession. Generally, Gaylord said, the annual salary in a decent economy for a professional nanny ranges from $25,000 to about $45,000 a year. A governess commands anywhere from $45,000 to around $65,000. Room and board is usually included, and the school requires health insurance and two weeks of paid vacation.
The family pays the school a $250 registration fee and a one-time 15 percent of the nanny's or governess' annual compensation, though Gaylord said the school lowered that fee during 2009.
The school has placed graduates nationally and internationally, and continues to work with students until they are placed.
Meanwhile, Robinson, who found some advertisements for nanny positions on the Internet, has had one offer and is expecting to get another. Having graduated from the school has helped her attract the attention of potential employers. And the experience has been a lot of fun.
"I had a blast with the other girls. If I wouldn't have come to the school, I would have missed out on so much," she said, teasingly slipping on a creepy Halloween mask that she used to tease the others in the dorm. "This is what happens when you don't treat your nanny right."
Everyone burst into laughter.
It takes a sense of humor to be a nanny.