By Marcy Stamper
“There is a crisis dramatically affecting the valley.” That’s the stark conclusion drawn from the comments of about 225 parents, child care providers and employers by researchers investigating local needs for child care and early-childhood education.
The results are from the Early Childhood Education & Childcare Initiative, an effort organized by the Methow Valley School District to find out how effectively existing child care options are meeting the needs of families. They also wanted to learn how well those arrangements are preparing children for kindergarten and beyond.
The key findings — which the researchers say underscore the urgency of the situation — are as follows:
• parents often find jobs but are unable to work because of a lack of child care.
• employers have trouble finding and retaining staff, in part because of barriers related to child care.
• families are stressed by the emotional and financial toll of managing child care arrangements.
The researchers found a significant gap in the capacity of existing formal day care and preschool facilities to meet families’ needs. Although child care is most widely available in the mornings, between 45 and 55 percent of children are not accommodated during that time. In the afternoon, the situation is more critical, with 60 to 70 percent of children not accommodated, according to a draft summary of the researchers’ community-needs assessment.
Child care options also vary by the day of the week. On Friday afternoons, fewer than 15 of the valley’s 244 children ages zero to 5 are accommodated by formal day care and preschool programs, according to their findings. (The researchers used figures from the 2010 census, so the total number of children in that age group has most likely changed.)
Many families use informal arrangements and some do not want or need child care every day, according to Anne Marie MacPherson, the consultant who led the study. About half rely on a family member or a combination of child care arrangements, and one-quarter rely only on a family member or friend.
Parents were particularly frustrated by the economics of child care. Many said that earning minimum wage — but paying $5 per hour for child care — made working seem “useless.” Many parents defined “affordable” child care as $100 per month per child, but the researchers found that this would be “much less” than what child care providers need to survive.
Employers said that their employees were less productive than they could be because they have to juggle schedules or leave midday to transport a child from one child care provider to another. Some reported that scheduling issues can make it difficult to hire single parents with young children.
“It challenges us [throughout the Methow Valley] in our ability to create economic vitality in being able to attract and retain high-quality employees,” said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable, who is chairing the early-childhood initiative steering committee.
Low-income parents emphasized safety, the physical environment and nutrition in child care arrangements, while middle- to higher-income parents stressed types of activities on offer, according to the summary. All parents wanted structure, consistency and socialization for their children.
A majority of parents stressed a desire for flexibility. They also want to be able to select from different philosophical approaches. Many see the role of early-childhood education as developing children’s social skills rather than preparing them academically for school, according to the research summary.
While parents wanted to see more child care options in Twisp, three-quarters said transportation was not a significant obstacle. Most child care facilities — particularly those with afternoon hours — are in Winthrop.
Interviews with faith leaders indicated that members of their congregations generally help one another by sharing child care and organizing educational activities, making child care arrangements a less-serious issue for these families, wrote the researchers.
Child care providers, some of whom had not met before attending focus groups organized by the researchers, acknowledged gaps in services but said that licensing requirements can be a barrier and that staffing — particularly for infant care, which requires a lower provider-child ratio—is difficult to manage. Balancing affordability with paying a living wage is a challenge, they said.
The steering committee — composed of 12 community members, including parents, educators and child care providers — will continue to review the findings at its next meeting on Monday (Dec. 15) and begin brainstorming a list of possible strategies, according to Venable.
The findings and suggestions will be compiled in a report to the community in the spring, to see if the conclusions are valid and if there are other things that should be considered, said Venable.
After this additional input, Venable and others involved in early-childhood education will propose strategies, which may become part of the school district’s budget considerations, said Venable. School district administrators and the board are likely to develop best- and worst-case scenarios, which will depend in part on how much money the state Legislature provides for education next spring or summer, said Venable.
While there are no preconceived ideas about how to address these child care needs, possibilities include a public or private preschool, vouchers to help with affordability, and partnerships with colleges for training and support for providers, according to the summary.
The school district is an integral participant in the initiative based on the six areas of strategic focus the district identified this past spring, after a similar process for public input. These goals include a commitment to investment in early-childhood education, equity in education for all students, and increasing children’s readiness for school.
The preliminary findings are based on interviews and survey responses from a broad spectrum of the community. Consultants held two informal community conversations and seven focus groups with employers, parents, faith leaders and child care and preschool providers; conducted individual interviews with health and social-service providers; and disseminated online and paper surveys.
The researchers polled enough people to make the results statistically significant, said Venable.
The heightened focus on this issue is based in part on research that shows the importance of the earliest years in brain development. By age 3, 85 percent of brain development has occurred and, by age 5, 92 percent, according to Venable.
“We’re expanding our definition of who we think of when we define who we serve — it’s not just the school district, but our early-learning partners, parents, etc.,” said Venable.