In Green County, working to ameliorate a child care desert
Providers and nonprofits collaborate to expand resources for families, employers and communities
A child care teacher engages one of the children at The Growing Tree child care center in New Glarus. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
As parents struggle in their search for child care and child care providers struggle to hire workers, one Wisconsin county is trying to make both of those efforts a little easier.
Providers and non-profit groups in Green County have teamed up to bolster child care where demand exceeds supply so drastically that the county has been called a child care desert.
The long-range objective is to ensure Green County families have access to high-quality child care if they need it and to ensure that they can afford it. The results so far have been incremental, but they’ve sparked wider interest across the state.
And while the focus has been on practical solutions that can be implemented now, the work has also brought home for the organizers the need for broader, more fundamental changes in order for child care to be a sustainable part of the community economy.
“We know child care has always been a major concern in our communities,” says Teresa Keehn, executive director of Green County United Way, one of the organizations involved in the countywide child care project. “COVID-19 brought it to the forefront.”
The pandemic drove home the critical role that child care plays in making it possible for people to go to work and for employers to hire them.
“We’ve got a lot of jobs in Green County, and we don’t have enough people to take care of kids,” says Cara Carper, director of the Green County Economic Development Corp. (GCDC), another organization involved in the county’s child care initiative.
Carper and Keehn teamed up with child care providers Brooke Skidmore and Corrine Hendrickson to develop the initiative along with other contributors. “It was a true partnership,” Hendrickson says.
‘Boot Camp’ for child care providers
In 2020 Carper had planned to visit Hendrickson’s child care business, Corrine’s Little Explorers during April for the Week of the Young Child. The pandemic shut down those plans, but the two women began a conversation that has continued.
A year later, in March and April of 2021, the Green County Economic Development Corp. sponsored a “Childcare Business Boot Camp” for prospective child care center operators. This fall, GCDC covered the cost for Green County child care teachers to take online “Safety Saturday” classes required by the state for professionals who care for children younger than 5.
Staff from the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association and the 11-county regional agency 4-C — short for Community Coordinated Child Care — provided the training for the programs, which were funded by a $10,000 grant from the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin.
In the boot camp, 14 new or prospective child care business operators met online for weekly, two-hour sessions over the course of eight weeks, learning the nuts and bolts of operating a child care business. The classes were taught in English and Spanish.
Another piece of the Green County initiative came from the county’s United Way program, which awarded a $50,000 grant to cover three projects: mental health support for child care workers; mentoring for new child care providers; and professional development programs for child care teachers as well as the parents of children in child care. The funds were part of a much larger pool of money that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) has been distributing statewide.
An essential resource
The mental health support is provided by a therapist who visits child care providers throughout the county and meets one-on-one with staff. Part of the job is to help child care workers cope with the stress their work can create. The therapist doesn’t meet with children, but can offer their teachers guidance on how to help kids who might have troubles of their own.
That sort of support should be recognized as essential, and can also help reduce the notoriously high turnover rate among child care workers, providers say. “It’s giving them an incentive to stay in the field,” says Nicole Wyss, a community resource specialist for 4-C who has been working closely with the Green County project.
For child care providers and teachers, it’s easy to “feel isolated,” Hendrickson says. “Having someone to talk to is helpful.”
The mentoring program pairs experienced providers with people who are newly establishing child care businesses. The mentors, who receive a stipend, meet weekly with the providers they are mentoring.
The professional development part of the grant is covering classes for child care workers as well as parallel classes for parents.
Skidmore operates The Growing Tree, a New Glarus child care center that she co-owns with her brother. She says making it possible for her teachers to meet with the therapist has been a welcome addition. So has support for their professional development, she adds.
Still, many providers have been caught between what they are able to charge and what they must pay in order to provide an income that child care workers can live on.
To start the job, professional child care workers require an initial set of early childhood classes. A full early childhood education credential or a two- or four-year college degree is preferred, and continuing education is required each year.
Pay for the field has been stuck in the range of $12 to 15 an hour. Some experienced workers leave for local school districts that have pre-school programs, where the pay is likely to be higher and there are benefits such as health insurance, Skidmore says.
Others leave the field entirely as retailers increase wages to as much as $15 an hour or more. Skidmore has raised wages for her staff, but her inability to find more workers has forced her to reduce her center’s capacity.
Currently she has 53 children enrolled because she remains short of the needed staff to properly care for the full 60 she is approved for. Both figures are below the 100-child capacity that she had originally planned so that she could generate enough revenue to clear expenses and qualify for a bank loan.
“We work really hard but we need help,” Skidmore says. “We need some more support.”
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The third major part of Green County’s child care project is covered by a $100,000 “seed accelerator” grant awarded in July by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), with the money going to child care providers.
Providers will use the money for new employee signing bonuses. Funds from the grant will also cover classes that unlicensed providers need to be certified or licensed with the state, with additional bonuses going to providers when they reach each of those credentials.
The funds are also available to encourage child care facilities to join the state’s YoungStar child care quality rating program, with additional bonuses for providers who increase their YoungStar rating. Graduates of the Childcare Boot Camp are being offered grants to purchase equipment and supplies, pay bonuses to attract or keep employees, or cover the cost of additional training for providers or child care workers.
“We’re trying to increase quantity and we’re trying to increase quality,” Carper says.
Seeking systemic change
The child care initiative’s accomplishments have been incremental. Two providers who took part in the boot camp have gone from being unregulated to getting licensed, Carper says, and a new child care center serving more than eight children has opened up in the county.
For the mentoring program, so far five experienced providers have been trained as mentors, mentoring a total of eight new providers.
The child care business boot camp concept was embraced by its original funder, the UW Small Business Development Center, which sponsored five similar programs (now titled “Build It Strong”) across the state in June and July, with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association again providing the training. More than 100 people attended one of the five regional programs.
In August, Wisconsin Rural Partners (WRP), a nonprofit network hub for rural communities and organizations, named the Green County child care initiative WRP’s 2021 Wisconsin Top Rural Development Initiative.
“We’ve been able to help in little areas,” says Keehn. “The ultimate goal is systemic change” — creating the financial support so that high-quality child care with workers able to earn a livable wage while child care remains affordable for families.
That is likely to require changes in how child care is financed so that the cost is borne more broadly across society. “We need to encourage people to get into the business,” Carper says. “It’s hard to convince somebody to get into the business when the business model is broken.”
That’s why another objective of the group is to expand public awareness about the need for an adequately funded system of child care. “This isn’t an issue just for families with kids,” Keehn says. “It’s a community issue.”
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