This latest Pre-to-3 column looks at what a variety of organizations — including public schools — are doing to meet the demand for safe and appropriate child care facilities. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
It’s risky in education to say any district was the first to do something. But in the mid-1980s, the small, rural Lanesboro Public Schools, in the southeastern part of Minnesota, was likely among the first to open an on-site child care center.
“It definitely makes us attractive,” Superintendent Matt Schultz, who arrived in the district in 2016, said in an interview. In an open enrollment state where families can choose where to send their children to school and some districts are consolidating in order to survive, the program is a recruitment tool and has a long waiting list, especially for infants. “The longer the waiting list, the more likely those kids would end up in another school district,” Schultz said.
And while some districts offer child care for employees, for teen parents or for students interested in pursuing a career in early-childhood education, Lanesboro’s program was launched in response to the community’s need for child care when an in-home provider closed.
“I look around us and so many communities have lost their last child care centers,” Schultz said, adding that while jobs are available in small towns, it’s often the lack of child care that keeps job seekers from moving to rural areas.
Lanesboro Child Care Center now serves about 65 children from birth to age 5 and another 45 school-age children in before- and after-school care. With the passage of a construction bond last fall, the program will expand to serve over 100 children, and the project will include an indoor playground accessible to both the child care facility and the elementary school — an especially useful feature in Minnesota.
While the child care cost is not subsidized, it’s more affordable for families than other options, Schultz said, because the facility costs are covered by the district. The program is also profiled in a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) that combines a variety of examples of how public agencies, private organizations and the philanthropic sector are addressing child care facility needs.
“There is no more pressing issue for child care in this country than the need for facilities,” Linda Smith, the director of BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative, said recently during a live-streamed event on the topic.
She showed images captured during a 10-state investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General that included health and safety violations, such as outlets hanging out of walls, an open crawl space under a provider’s home and exposed pipes.
‘Not a dedicated source of money’
BPC and other organizations working in this area are also calling for the federal government to conduct a national assessment of facility needs and to create a grant program for renovation and construction. While funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant has increased, those funds are mostly for child-care subsidies for low-income families. Only tribes can use block grant funds for facilities, Smith said, adding that 38 tribes have indicated they are using or plan to use those funds for construction.
“The problem that we’re facing is that there is not a dedicated source of money,” she said in an interview, “and the ones that are out there are complicated.”
The May 22 BPC event included those with expertise in financing early-childhood facilities, but school districts also have an important role in increasing the supply of child care in their communities, Smith said.
“I think that schools go into the same category as businesses. They have a workforce; they have a need,” she said, but added that providing child care and preschool facilities also contributes to school readiness and creates opportunities for educators to create smooth transitions for children between early-childhood and K-12. “It’s a twofer for schools.”
In another example, the Coffeyville School District in Kansas operates the Dr. Jerry Hamm Early Learning Center, a 12-classroom facility that serves 220 children from birth through age 5. The nonprofit Coffeyville Coalition for Early Education worked with local business leaders and the philanthropic community to build support for a $2.1 million expansion, which includes subsidized and full-pay slots as well as children in Head Start and Early Head Start.
Importance of technical assistance
At the BPC event, experts talked about the needs center directors have for support in finding financing for facility projects as well as managing the process.
“I have yet to meet somebody who went into early-childhood education to do a complicated real estate project,” said Jonathan Harwitz, the managing director for federal policy and government affairs with the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), which describes itself as a “bridge between private capital markets and low-income neighborhoods.” LIIF’s programs include grants, loans and technical assistance related to child care facilities.
One of those people currently in the midst of expansion efforts is Patricia Browne, the president and CEO of the National Children's Center in Washington, which serves infants through senior citizens, providing programs for children and adults with special needs as well as child care for low-income families. The center’s early learning program serves 184 children and has a waiting list of 200, Browne said. It has also received a grant to serve as a training site for prospective pediatricians, teachers and social workers. “The future is coming to our center as a place to train and develop,” she said.
But the facility is aging and less-efficient mechanical systems mean high utility bills. “We were very, very close to closing our center because we could not afford to maintain the cost,” said Browne, adding that she looked into becoming a charter school because it would give the center access to facility funds.
Then the center was included in the Bainum Family Foundation’s efforts to add 750 early learning slots in D.C.’s lowest-income neighborhoods by 2020, working with the D.C. government and the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based financial institution. Now, the center is moving forward on a renovation project that would allow the center to serve 248 young children.
From birth to graduation
While school district leaders tend to have more experience with capital projects than child care and preschool directors, they may not fully understand how to design spaces for young children, experts at the event said.
An earlier BPC report, released last fall, is meant to provide guidance to those designing early-childhood facilities or adapting older structures to accommodate young children.
Over the years, there have been plenty of students graduating from Lanesboro Secondary School who started out in the district as babies. Schultz sees high school students walking younger siblings into the center, and its close proximity is convenient for breastfeeding mothers on staff.
“It still feels really unique,” he said.