The first few years of a child’s life are fundamental for brain development and shaping the person they become as an adult. But Nebraska families face the challenge of finding high-quality, affordable and reliable places for their children in the years between birth and school. Two rural communities are tackling this problem in innovative ways.
When Ashley Armstrong was looking to move her family to her husband’s rural home town of Red Cloud, she says one main concern stood out.
“You look for a vibrant community. You look for options. And when you have young children you definitely look for options in childcare, because that is one of your highest priorities,” Armstrong said.
Once she moved to Red Cloud, she had a choice between two providers—one was licensed, one wasn’t. Armstrong says even with help from extended family, she and her husband sometimes had to scramble to find childcare.
“And I had previously come from Kansas City and my older two children had been involved in a child development center from birth to age five that was incredible. So I saw firsthand the influence that that made on my older two children,” Armstrong said.
Parents like Armstrong face the same challenge across Nebraska. Samuel Meisels is executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, which partnered with Gallup in 2015 to survey Nebraskans about their views on early childcare in the state.
“Overwhelmingly people in Nebraska support early care and education, believe that we need more of it, and that the state should take a more active role in its support, particularly for children living in families that are existing in poverty,” Meisels said. But Nebraskans are concerned about availability of care, the quality of the care and the cost.
“The cost of infant care, full-time, in a center-based setting, is more than the cost of enrollment for your freshman year at UNL, UNO or UNK,” Meisels said.
Courtesy of 2016 "Kids Count in Nebraska" report from Voices for Children.
And that’s not because childcare workers make a lot of money. In 2015, on average a childcare worker in Nebraska earned less than $20,000. But high-quality, center-based care isn’t cheap.
And Meisels points out the little public support that exists—like state child care subsidy payments—is limited to low-income families. Those subsidies only cover around a third of infant care costs, and the State Legislature is currently considering a bill to freeze child care subsidy payments for next year.
“So we have put the burden of childcare largely on the backs of parents, on the backs of families,” he said.
But Meisels says we can’t overlook the value of investing in children very early on. Early childhood education has been shown to reduce juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy while leading to higher incomes and job satisfaction later in life.
“The quality of early care and education is absolutely crucial. Very important. The early years of life is a time when the brain is developing most rapidly,” Meisels said.
Eighty-four percent of Nebraska counties with childcare facilities don’t have enough spaces to meet demand. Eleven counties in the state—all rural—have no licensed childcare at all.
“In rural areas, the biggest problem that's identified is availability,” Meisels said. “In other words, there’s not enough of it or it’s not near enough to where they live.”
One way to offer more quality childcare could be through public schools. Bryce Jorgenson is school superintendent in Shickley, a town of 300 in southeast Nebraska. Three years ago he developed a preschool program. After realizing a similar need existed for even younger kids, Jorgenson developed infant and toddler programs too.
“And then as that popularity grew we just had to add another class so that we could have more kids. The infants and the toddler rooms are going to be at capacity actually pretty soon,” Jorgenson said. As a school, Jorgenson says they were in a good position to expand education and care, and his small district was already accustomed to the low teacher to student ratios required of childcare facilities.
“People trust schools. To know that you have a certified teacher, that means a lot to a parent, and they know that we have the safety protocols already and those kind of things,” Jorgenson said.
Jorgenson says the childcare program is important to the survival of the school and the town. Two new families have moved to Shickley because of it.
“We only have 300 people in town,” he says. “So anytime you can add a new family of four or five, that's always a good thing.”
Jorgenson admits it’s been tough financially, but says he and the school board remain committed to keeping the program going. “It's been a stress on our budget, it has. But the board has been willing to do that and I think the community has been supportive of that as well,” he said.
Ashley Armstrong, the mom whose kids attended a great facility in Kansas City, is a pediatric physical therapist. She was motivated to create something similar when she moved to Red Cloud, and she wasn’t the only one.
The Valley Child Development Center will offer developmentally-appropriate, child centered care for children six weeks to three years. It will also support the existing preschool, providing care before and after school year-round, including in summer months when school is out of session.
“We wanted to provide childcare, because it was a desperate need of so many parents in the area,” said Red Cloud resident Sally Hansen, who says community action planning and town surveys in Red Cloud showed local support for affordable, reliable, high-quality childcare. In the last several years, she, Armstrong and others have tirelessly volunteered their time to plan and fundraise for a brand-new nonprofit childcare center.
“We had to do it. It wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t do it,” Hansen said. She’s now board president of the childcare nonprofit.
In late March, families and community members gathered on the site of the future Valley Child Development Center for a groundbreaking ceremony. Young kids in colorful coats, hard hats and an array of shovels stood posing for a picture in the chilly spring wind as their parents called out instructions to smile. Hansen said they’ve seen an increase in young families moving to town and want to keep that trend going.
“We feel it's important not only for the children and families but for Red Cloud economically--providing the service so that it can encourage other young families to move back or move in or to stay,” Hansen said.
Once built, the Valley Child Development Center will offer care and education for up to 80 children ages six weeks to three years. The center will also supplement existing public preschool, providing care before and after school and during the summer months. Hansen says they’ll hire 10 to 12 teachers and assistants at competitive salaries with training in early childhood education. They plan to offer developmentally-appropriate, child-centered education and care to all their young charges.
“One of the things we say is we're not preparing these kids for kindergarten. We're preparing these children for life,” Hansen said.
So far they’ve raised more than half of the $3.5 million needed for the center from philanthropists, foundations, and community members, as well as local businesses who want to grow and retain a young, reliable work force. A portion of the initial funds raised will be set aside in a permanent endowment to support the center in years to come. Though Red Cloud only has a population of 1,000, they expect to draw children from surrounding communities when they open this winter.
The kids at the groundbreaking ceremony may not have understood the significance of the project, but it was clear their parents were excited by the prospect of high-quality, reliable, affordable childcare in their town in the near future.