A long overdue plan to cut childhood poverty

The Covid relief bill now working its way through Congress will mark a transformation in the way this country treats poor children. It’s about damn time.

First the numbers, which vary ever-so-slightly from year-to-year, but which should be appalling to the citizens of the world’s richest country: 24 percent in Swain County, 26.6 percent in Macon, 22.5 percent in Jackson and 22.5 percent in Haywood. That the number of children living in poverty every single day of their lives. Right at one-fourth of the youngsters we see around our community every day.

Pandemic exposes fragile childcare system

On average, it costs parents $9,480 a year for infant childcare in North Carolina, which is $2,126 more than they’ll pay for in-state tuition to a four-year N.C. university. 

Childcare facilities continue to serve front-line families

As executive orders began piling up throughout March to close schools, restaurants, hotels and all other non-essential businesses, childcare facilities remained open. The essential nature of the business meant that even though it is a place where adults and children gather together in close quarters, it would have to adapt to continue its services.

The best reason of all to play

It’s one of those late March days that can’t make up its mind whether winter is really over or might hang on for another of weeks. When the sun elbows through a patch of low, gray clouds, it’s warm enough to take off your jacket, but then the wind picks up and you put it back on.

Mission closes Sylva women and children’s practices

In an effort to consolidate women’s and children’s services in Franklin, Mission Health has announced it will be closing those practices in Sylva.

Fate of early childhood programs could rest with next legislature

coverArmed with a stack of folded construction paper, Charlotte Rogers ushered a four-year-old child to sit down at a pint-sized writing desk, take up a pencil and scratch out the words “I love you” in crooked letters on the inside.

Start-up costs hinder possible remedy for Macon child care shortage

 fr childcareA couple in Macon County is trying to raise $2 million to open a childcare center that would serve 120 children.

Cuts target childhood development during critical early years

When SmartStart, an early childhood education program, was launched in 1993, it was hailed nationally as a model for reaching children during those critical early development years before kindergarten. This, said educators, was the way to give kids a good foundation for lifelong learning.

The idea was to bring in parents, funnel funds into local programs and foster interagency cooperation to help develop children from birth to kindergarten.

And for 18 years, it’s worked, said Janice Edgerton, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children, which administers the money for SmartStart in Western North Carolina. The idea has been co-opted by other states; North Carolina, it seemed, had done something right.

“It is so obvious now that these (early) years are so important, and on top of that you can track back the research about the success of programs that have worked with children in the early years. You can look back at North Carolina and see the difference now,” said Edgerton. “It’s crucial, and we have tons of evidence to support it.”

But now, as they’ve done in so many other places, the vagaries of the economy and politics are creeping in on SmartStart.

Starting next year, it will lose at least 20 percent of its funding, and possibly up to a quarter.

In Haywood County, cuts will be felt in a program called Parents As Teachers. It does pretty much what it sounds like — engages parents to take an active role in teaching their own babies, toddlers and preschoolers, teaches them what to look for and how to foster their development in the vital early years.

For Nora Doggett, it’s been an invaluable service.

She and her husband moved here from California last year, and that’s when she became a stay-at-home mom for the first time.

“It was a different experience and I didn’t know how to handle it,” said Doggett. But thanks to the Parents As Teachers workers, she now knows how to shepherd her two sons, ages 1 and 3, through the different developmental stages, and she’s got support the whole way.

“Right now, my son is three, and I know what he’s supposed to be doing, and I know what else to look for in him,” said Doggett. “Because they are with you along the way, they know how your children develop.”

Despite its success, the program is falling prey to the gaping budget hole that’s been looming over every state-funded agency for months now.

In SmartStart’s corner, opposing the cuts, are, of course, education advocates who point to numerous studies that list early-age development as key to success later in life. Joining them are the state’s Democrats, who may be in it for the children, but have also entered the fray to take shots at their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, who they say are killing off vital programs with a slash-and-burn approach to the budget and using services like SmartStart as political weapons.

On the other side of the ring are said Republicans, who counter that they’re not cutting arbitrarily, but necessarily. When there’s a funding hole as big as the state faced, something’s got to go, even if it means good programs are cut.

“There’s not enough waste, fraud and abuse in the government to fix $2 billion worth of deficit,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “We just can’t continue going to the well and asking people for more money, no matter how good the program is.”

He and fellow Republicans went after SmartStart and its companion childcare program, More At 4, citing service duplication and administratively heavy structures. They cut $1 million from the administrative side, said Davis, but they needed more. They had to slice into programming somewhere. And SmartStart was that place.

Parents as Teachers in Haywood County already has 27 families on a waiting list. With the cuts, one of its three facilitators will be laid off, pushing even more families to the waiting list.

Parents as Teachers facilitators make home visits to evaluate children and show parents how to make learning toys from things they already have, like dry pasta and toilet paper tubes.

They also hold group sessions to connect families to one another and teach parenting skills that prepare babies for kindergarten.

And then there’s the connections to other families, other services in the community, which Parents As Teachers workers say are some of the most helpful things they do, especially in the Hispanic community.

Tania Rossi heads up the Latino Parents As Teachers initiative, and she said that’s been one of her greatest successes, connecting families to one another and encouraging them to get their children into early education.

“After six years in the Latino program, I can see a lot of difference,” said Rossi. “You see the impact with other families.”

Among the kids in her Latino program, the reading rates have shot up over the last six years, due partly to her efforts at educating parents.

SmartStart initiatives, however, include far more than Parents as Teachers.

They subsidize childcare for families in the region who can’t afford it, along with developmental services like reading assistance and speech therapy. SmartStart also works behind the scenes with programs like WAGE$, which offers small bonuses to traditionally low-paid preschool teachers, giving them incentives to stick with it.

Across the state, SmartStart funds dozens of initiatives with local partners to support toddlers and their families. Edgerton said she’s concerned that SmartStart won’t be able to continue offering the quality of services it does now.

“You’ve got to remember that we’ve had drastic budget cuts the last 10 years,” said Edgerton. “I’ve been here for 13 years at the Partnership for Children and we’ve had budget cuts for 10 years. So this is really taking a very lean budget and cutting it to blazes.”

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he understands the direness of the state’s financial situation. And, he said, consolidating everything into a single birth-to-kindergarten model is an admirable pursuit. But deep cuts to the programs themselves, he said, would hurt the state’s children.

“It’s just not necessary,” said Rapp. “But you know, that’s where I think you get people that are in a straightjacket to their own political rhetoric. The bottom line on all of this is that we’ve got children who are at risk that need childcare and preschool education. I just find those kind of cuts unconscionable.”

Lack of childcare hindering WCU recruitment, retention

Finding childcare, particularly for infants, has surfaced as a growing problem for the young professionals who make up much of Western Carolina University’s faculty and staff.

Take Elizabeth McRae, a professor of history at WCU, who when she gave birth to daughter Lucy, relied on an older neighbor to pass along the name of someone trustworthy to watch her newborn.

“Finding infant care is particularly difficult,” McRae said. “Beyond the few facilities that provide it, the best option is to find someone doing in-home care for infants. With that said, finding who those folks are seems mostly a function of word of mouth.”

McRae said she has since passed on the name of her care provider to fellow faculty in the history department, keeping the woman “well-supplied with infants for the past 10 years.”

A taskforce at WCU is tackling the issue, which has developed into something of a recruitment and retention problem. WCU provides up to 60 calendar days of paid leave for childbirth or adoption. Though, at the time McRae had her child, she was forced to take leave without pay.

Headed by A.J. Grube, the group hopes to make recommendations to the Faculty Senate by the end of this month. An informal email survey of WCU faculty and staff showed about 80 percent of those responding felt some sort of need for after-school or infant care.

Grube, department head of WCU’s business administration and law and sport management, and the mother of two young children (ages 6 and 3), understands the difficulties of finding childcare.

“I think it is a reflection of a larger problem in Jackson County and our region,” Grube said. “It is not easy to find childcare in this area.”

The situation doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions. In neighboring Macon County, lack of childcare has become such a critical issue, county leaders have designated the problem an economic-development issue. The county’s Economic Development Commission has made childcare a top goal of the group when trying to lure new businesses.

Grube said solving the lack of infant care might be beyond the university’s capabilities, particularly considering the massive budget shortfall. But, the group will probably continue to explore options, and certainly could assemble a database of sorts for faculty and staff searching for care providers, she said.

Also possible is offering training through the university’s educational outreach center for people interested in becoming professional childcare providers.

WCU has the Kneedler Child Development Center on campus, offering childcare for up to 70 children from ages one through five. The center is managed by Mountain Projects, and is integrated with the university through the Division of Student Affairs.

One need that has surfaced is after-school care for older children. Grube and other taskforce members believe that it might be possible to combine such a program with WCU’s College of Education, “and the idea has a good bit of traction,” she told Faculty Senate last week.

“The idea would be to benefit Western students,” Grube said, “not just provide babysitting.”

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, an assistant professor of geosciences and natural resources and vice-chairman of Faculty Senate, applauded the efforts of the childcare taskforce, echoing Grube in saying that the issue is one the greater community of Jackson County, as well as the region, faces.

Childcare openings fall far short of demand in Macon

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale knew the county had a problem when two young working mothers contacted him directly following the closure of a daycare and unable to find openings elsewhere.

“They were saying ‘We don’t have anywhere to send our children, so what are we supposed to do?’” Beale said.

Beale chartered a committee in February of 2009 to explore the causes of Macon County’s suspected childcare shortage and last week the group released its findings.

The verdict? Macon County doesn’t have enough affordable, quality childcare, particularly for those under 2 years old.

Chuck Sutton –– executive director of Macon Program for Progress, a federally funded nonprofit that provides childcare for 315 children –– chaired the committee. Sutton said he and the other people with experience in childcare had a strong feeling about what they would find when they began the study.

“I think there were several of us that had the feeling there was an existing problem but we couldn’t put numbers to it,” Sutton said.

In rural areas, the low population density makes it difficult for daycare providers to turn a profit because the costs of hiring licensed personnel and paying for insurance are too high. Meanwhile, for working parents paying $125 a week per child for daycare, throw in a mortgage and car payment and they can barely afford groceries.

“You can’t really drive the price down because that’s what it costs to care for a child properly,” Sutton said. “So the providers and the parents are working against each other.”

The study, using 2008 population statistics, showed there were 1,147 children under 2 years old in Macon County. Working from the assumption that half were cared for by a stay-at-home parent or other family member, the study pegged demand in the county at 574 slots for infants and toddlers.

But the current capacity is well short — only 210 spaces, the majority of which are reserved only for low-income families. That means over 300 families are stuck on waiting lists or are sending their children to unlicensed providers.

The county enlisted the resources of a long list of state and regional agencies in the study –– including Department of Health and Human Services and the Southwestern Child Development Commission –– and amassed a thick volume of findings that pointed to the reality that good childcare is an important part of early development.

Macon Program for Progress, Sutton’s organization, supplies the bulk of the slots for children under the age of 2, but the federally funded programs are only available to families that meet federal poverty guidelines.

The result is that the families in the middle suffer.

“Our programs are income-based and what we find is the families who are just above those income guidelines are the ones who are most at a disadvantage in this system,” Sutton said.

Now Sutton and the other members of the committee are hoping the county can find a creative solution to fix what is essentially a broken childcare economy.

Sutton hopes they can follow the lead of Jackson County, where Harris Regional Medical Center has worked in conjunction with private businesses to provide a daycare facility.

“We want to see some business or industry-based employers take up the call and say they’re going to invest,” Sutton said.

Public-private partnerships are another model, like a childcare facility at Haywood Community College that serves as a teaching institution for students in early childhood development. Also in Haywood, the school system partnered with a childcare center where teachers are given first priority.

Beale said the county would be willing to work on providing a space for a private daycare provider and would continue to work with the state to see if there was any money available to drive a solution to the problem.

“We’ve done the report. We have the need. Now what?” Beale said.

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