By Dani Reynaud
For kids, summer can be one of most exciting and fun times of the year. No school! Hitting the swimming hole! Archery camp! Sleeping in!
Yet some parents — especially working parents — and kids view summer with a mix of dread and anxiety. The “Summer Juggle,” with its constantly changing schedules, can be far from fun or relaxing. Yes, school is out, but work is not.
The answer to families can be a hacked-together schedule of camps, kid-swapping with other harried parents, and high school babysitters. Often, one week looks completely different than the next depending on what — and who — is available.
The lack of available, affordable high-quality early education and child care in our valley is a relentless struggle for many parents, and not just in the summer.
With this in mind, leaders from Room One, Little Star Montessori School and the Methow Valley School District came together in late 2014 to look closely at the urgent need for additional child care and early childhood education in the Methow Valley. These organizations convened a 13-member Steering Committee and engaged 111 community members to better understand our local needs and opportunities. In early 2015, the group summarized its findings in an Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment Report.
The report revealed a child care crisis dramatically affecting parents, employers and the health of the Methow economy. It identified several large unmet needs (particularly for infant care, Friday child care, after-hours care and summer child care). Specifically, in 2014, no licensed infant care existed up to 18 months of age, and Little Star was the only licensed full-day provider for children ages 18 months to 3 years. The report concluded that these gaps in child care resulted in significant losses to the local work force and extra stress for families.
The report identified seven specific goals for improving Methow Valley child care options: to make quality early childhood education opportunities available for all, to prioritize care for under-served families, to serve 170-200 children under age 5, to make child care available year-round, to support flexible schedules, to provide parent support and education programs, and to provide training and adequate compensation for child care providers.
Today, thanks to continued strong partnerships and community support, significant progress has been made towards every goal.
For example, Head Start expanded its pre-school program located at Methow Valley Elementary School, so that next year Head Start will be a five-day-week, full-day program. Head Start is working closely with the school staff to develop units and teaching methods that are consistent with those that children will experience in kindergarten and beyond. Head Start received a federal grant for these expansions, which will also include new classroom materials and a new playground.
Also, the elementary school has developed its after-school child care program over the past two years. During the 2016-17 school year, the two-thirds of all elementary students participated in one or more after-school program. The elementary school now offers daily after-school child care on a sliding-scale fee basis for all students in grades K-6, which includes transportation to Winthrop or Twisp and a healthy snack. The school district hopes to expand this program to include summer options by 2018.
Lastly, Little Star Montessori School and partners are also stepping up. Our newest program, Little Star South Collaborative (LSSC) — a partnership of Room One, TwispWorks and Little Star — will open doors this September, providing the first licensed infant child care in the Methow Valley. LSSC will serve children as young as 6 weeks old through age 3, and include strong scholarship and parent support programs.
Perhaps most relevantly, LSSC will allow for year-round care in Twisp, allowing parents and employers down valley to breathe a collective sigh of relief. All of Little Star’s programs include Montessori teacher training and pay rates that are above average for preschool teachers across the region.
Inadequate child care and early education is a persistent issue affecting rural communities across the nation. The type of collaboration and partnerships taking place in the Methow Valley around early education and child care is unprecedented. I am so proud of our Methow community for working together to address this critical issue.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to anyone’s child care situation but we can all agree that having high-quality, affordable and reliable child care options is important for families — and for a healthy economy. It will take the whole community to realize the vision of multiple options as demonstrated by Head Start, Methow Valley School District, Room One, TwispWorks and Little Star reacting to meet the community’s needs. And, in Little Star’s case, we will be sharing more great news in the world of child care and early childhood education in the coming weeks.
We hope you stay tuned!
Dani Reynaud is executive director of Little Star Montessori School in Winthrop.