Taking Aim at PreK Learning: Local advocates are working to find ways to provide quality, affordable childcare (News & Record, February 22, 2016)

BY MARQUITA BROWN

Marquita.brown@greensboro.com

When recent winter storms led to school closings and icy roads, Rhonda Stewart of Greensboro had no choice but to take off from work without pay and stay home to care for her toddler, Madison.

Such emergency care isn’t the only child care concern facing the young working mother.

Stewart, 23, worries about being able to keep Madison in affordable, quality care that will prepare her for kindergarten. Madison attends Head Start, which ends about 2 p.m., several hours before Stewart typically leaves work. Stewart also takes classes at Guilford Technical Community College.

A report recently released by the local coalition Ready for School, Ready for Life underscores many local families’ struggles with similar concerns. The coalition aims to transform Guilford County’s early childhood development system.

A growing amount of research supports the importance of the lessons and skills children learn before age 5, when the brain grows the fastest.

The early education and the quality of care children receive impacts their long-term academic success. Researchers tie the early education and development to a child’s chances of graduating high school, later upward mobility and closing achievement gaps.

But for some families, issues such as high costs, lack of transportation, work schedules or lack of information block their access to quality early education and care. They find viable solutions difficult to come by.

Another issue is low pay for teachers at child care centers. Despite research supporting the importance of their work, those teachers typically get paid little more than minimum wage—about $10 an hour. Those salary levels have not significantly increased in about 25 years even though child care costs have doubled.

The challenges are not unique to Guilford County.

Issues of access and affordability of high quality child care exist across the country. Nationally, fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-olds are in high quality care, according to a White House report.

In Guilford County, though, local business leaders, educators, parents, and advocates are working on ways to start chipping away at barriers to early education.

They had conversations earlier this month at a conference sponsored by Ready for School, Ready for Life. The groups plan to reconvene in May to talk about the “small wins” or early results from the efforts they began in the 100 days after the conference.

Those efforts will be concrete, tangible and implementable, said Mary Herbenick, executive director of Ready for School, Ready for Life and author of the report. Those initial successes will help more people want to get involved, she said.

“Our community agrees that we want each child to start school on the best possible track,” Herbenick said. There are long-term costs for the community and for the country as a whole when that doesn’t happen, she said.

For the Ready for School report, more than 300 local residents talked about their dreams for their children, as well as what does and doesn’t work related to raising children younger than 5 in Guilford County. Stewart was one of those residents.

The Ready for School research doesn’t just focus on child care. It notes other developmental challenges local children and their families experience, such as poverty, lack of transportation, unstable housing and insufficient health care.

Children who start kindergarten behind their peers tend to struggle to catch up.

Most students starting kindergarten in Guilford County Schools—between 50 and 60 percent—show reading readiness at the start of that firs year, said Whitney Oakley, executive director of preK-5 curriculum for the school system.

But about 1 in 5 Guilford kindergarteners—about 1,000 children—requires remediation, according to the Ready for School report.

Students undergo assessments to gauge basic skills of text reading and comprehension, understanding parts of a book and that they read from left to right.

Some children start school with exposure to thousands more words than their peers, Oakley said. The difference is monumental compared to those who may not start school with the same level of skills, she said.

Children who “have the opportunity to attend prekindergarten and preschool programs are better equipped, both socially and academically, when they come to school in kindergarten,” Oakley said. “We want to expand on that opportunity.”

The partnership between Guilford County and Say Yes to Education could offer an opportunity to better connect those early education programs to the K-12 public school system.

When students are lacking skills, when they start school behind, it’s more difficult to catch them up. Prevention is easier than intervention.

Local advocates argue the benefits of quality early education and care far outweigh the costs. Having a better educated work force helps with attracting businesses and economic viability.

But the cost of child care remains a significant issue for families.

Quality child care can cost more than $600 a month, depending on the child’s age, or about $7,200 a year—more than tuition and fees at most colleges in the UNC system. Care for infants and toddlers can cost about $900 a month, according to the report.

“If you can afford to pay the tuition of high quality care, you have some choices,” said Nicole McCaskill, an early care and education professional.

Many parents don’t. of an estimated 37,562 children younger than 5 in Guilford County, 28 percent of them life in poverty, according to the Ready for School report.

Receiving a quality early education and care should be viewed as a right just like with K-12 public schools, McCaskill said

“What’s the difference between that 4-year-old and 5-year-old besides a birthday?” she asked. “They still need a quality education.”

There are some options for families to get assistance with child care costs, but the need is greater than the available resources.

In North Carolina, 956 children younger than 5 are on the wait list for child care subsidies, the Ready for School report stated. More than 80 percent are younger than 3.

Stewart is on a couple of wait lists for help with child care costs. She had been on one of those lists for almost a year only to learn in January that she was removed and would have to be added back and wait all over again.

She recently started working a job where she and other employees have rotating shifts. Stewart has had to switch shifts with other employees in order to pick Madison up from Head Start, something she said she can’t continue to do. Stewart said she wants stable hours and to be able to spend more time with Madison when the girl is not in school. Ideally, Stewart said, she would be able to get a nanny or someone to pick up her daughter from Head Start and care for her until she or Madison’s father gets off work.

When she researched the costs, Stewart found nannies charge about $10 an hour—just about $1 less than she earns.

Stewart said she doesn’t want to settle for a cheap place where Madison won’t learn. She wants her daughter to be safe. She wants to keep Madison in Head Start, but worries about whether that will continue to be possible.

“I may be in a better situation where I’m not eligible for Head Start again,” Stewart said. “I don’t want that.”

In about four years, when Madison is old enough to start kindergarten, Stewart said she wants her to be ready. She wants her to be comfortable in the school environment and to start having positive learning experiences from Day 1.

“I just want her to be ahead in her class,” she said, “and it starts early.”

Contact Marquita Brown at (336) 373-7002, and follow @mbrownNR on Twitter.