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Documentary shows how California daycare providers are gaining power

A scene from “Make a Circle,” a documentary about daycare centers directed by Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide, which has its world premiere at the DocLands Documentary Film Festival in San Rafael.

Patricia Moran earned a law degree in her native Bolivia. Charlotte Guinn was a bank manager from Oakland. Each of them has found their calling as day carers.

As the documentary “Make a Circle” shows, anyone who chooses this profession must love it unconditionally. Working hours are long – 12-14 hours a day; Wages are low, in many cases averaging less than $10 per hour, with little or no benefits.

DocLands Documentary Film Festival: Thursday-Sunday, 2nd-5th May. $8-$16.50 general admission. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael. cafilm.org

And yet the emotional rewards are immense.

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“I love everything about children, and when I first became an assistant at a preschool and kindergarten, I realized that those early years are the most important for children,” Moreno told the Chronicle by phone from San Jose, where she was helping Children make Mother's Day cards. “We can all have a beautiful impact on a child’s life.”

Moran and Guinn are two of the Bay Area daycare centers featured in Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide's documentary “Make a Circle,” which has its world premiere at the DocLands Documentary Film Festival in San Rafael.

DocLands, an annual event of the California Film Institute, will take place Thursday through Sunday, May 2-5, at the Smith Rafael Film Center. “Make a Circle” will be shown on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

Five years in the making, the film begins during the COVID pandemic lockdown and details day care providers' attempts to unionize and receive raises and benefits from the state of California.

Patricia Moran attends a rally for daycare workers in

Patricia Moran attends a rally for daycare workers in “Make a Circle,” a documentary film directed by Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide that has its world premiere at the DocLands Documentary Film Festival in San Rafael.

“There is a persistent myth about what education looks like for children under five,” Bradwell told the Chronicle. “We believe that the real school begins when the children have their butts behind the desk in kindergarten. Science says that's not true. Actually, you learn in the womb, you learn from day one.

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“So the driving force (behind the film) is to show what education looks like for our youngest citizens.”

One conclusion that Make a Circle draws that may be a revelation to many is that day care is not babysitting. Licensed day care providers are professionals who create lesson plans and organize activities. They are true teachers and help develop young minds while their parents are at work.

They also bring their own personality and strengths to the task. Guinn, who runs Rose's Day Care in Oakland — her students call her Aunt Rose — has a vegetable garden that the children tend, and as a black belt martial artist, she teaches some rudimentary self-defense moves and incorporates physical fitness into a typical training day.

Guinn, like Moran, has lesson plans in both English and Spanish.

“My children have a zest for life and love, and that’s what children need,” Guinn told the Chronicle. “We have zero to five and that is very important in a child's life, it determines success and failure. They say that if you send your child to preschool, they are more likely to get a college degree. I had 675 children over the course of 29 years. All three of my children and my family’s children came through here, and they all went to college.”

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Bradwell, a veteran documentary filmmaker, and Boekelheide, a composer and editor who began his career on Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope and worked on “Star Wars,” became interested in the subject when their two children, now 12 and 7, went there through the daycare center.

Charlotte Guinn attends a rally for day care workers in “Make a Circle,” a documentary by Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide that has its world premiere at the DocLands Documentary Film Festival in San Rafael on Sunday, May 5.

Charlotte Guinn attends a rally for day care workers in “Make a Circle,” a documentary by Jen Bradwell and Todd Boekelheide that has its world premiere at the DocLands Documentary Film Festival in San Rafael on Sunday, May 5.

They began filming before the pandemic when their youngest was still in daycare, and then the story changed, as it often does in documentaries.

“We weren’t sure if we could continue the film,” Boekelheide admitted. “But we said, 'Okay, let's find a way and a way to do it,' and when they reopened we were fully masked and could only film outside, then after the vaccinations when things opened up a little bit .” A little later the masks began to come off and I was allowed in.

“Filming children was great. After just a minute you are invisible. I showed up with all this gear and almost looked like God or something, and these kids were fascinated for a while and then they just went back to what they were doing.”

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The pandemic caused thousands of daycare workers to quit their jobs – one of the film's protagonists became an Amazon delivery driver, frustrated by low pay and lack of benefits. The film notes that 25 million parents in America rely on daycare and many daycares have waiting lists, so support is critical.

“We need our services,” said Moran, who has been a daycare operator for 26 years. “We have value and are worth it. I hear someone say, “The only thing you do is change diapers.” That is very unfair. We must be respected by the law. Most of us have college degrees and training.

“But I’m going to keep doing it because I love what I do.”

Reach G. Allen Johnson: ajohnson@sfchronicle.com

Anna Harden

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