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The lack of affordable child care is not just an issue in urban and suburban communities. In rural America, limited access also takes a toll on small town economies. Special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon traveled to Nebraska to see how two small towns there are working to solve their child care problems as part of our series, "Raising the Future: America’s child care dilemma.”
In this next report in our series on child care, the lack of affordable child care is not just an issue in urban and suburban communities. In rural America, limited access can also take a toll on small town economies.
Special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon traveled to Nebraska to see how two small towns there are working to solve problems.
It's all part of our series Raising the Future: America's Child Care Dilemma.
It's a peaceful morning outside the Coffey family home in Shickley, Nebraska. Inside, the morning rush has begun.
Getting Hank ready Homework. There you go.
Sadie Coffey is a mother of four, ranging in age from 1.5 to 14. Her husband heads to work most mornings by 5:30, so she's in charge of getting everyone up and ready.
Shickley is a small town, just 341 people. Agriculture drives the local economy and supports businesses along Main Street. About 10 years ago, there was concern that those businesses and the wider community were facing a rocky future, not because of falling crop prices, but for a lack of child care.
A community survey revealed child care was a critical need for young families. Worried they might move away and businesses would suffer, the town took action. In 2013, using state grant money, local tax dollars, and fees from parents, Shickley created something the nation has seldom seen, an infant and toddler child care program owned and operated by a public school district.
Coffey has not only been a parent in the program. She's also been in charge of it the last three years as the superintendent of Shickley Public Schools.
Here at Shickley Public Schools, we are diapers to diplomas. That child care obstacle isn't an obstacle anymore. And that's huge.
As the country grapples with child care issues like access, affordability, quality, and work force pay, Shickley's public school model aims to address all of them. The school's program serves children from 6 weeks old through the age of two.
Twenty are currently enrolled, and another 20 are in the school's pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The infant and Toddler program is open year-round and participation is optional. Parents pay $27 a day per child, about $6,000 a year for full-time care.
That's less than the typical rate for infants and toddlers around the state, but for families who need help, there is financial aid. Coffey says the program is a great value for the quality of care children receive.
Our certified teachers, our paraprofessionals, just in the last three years, they have clocked in over 360 hours of professional development.
Equally significant, those teachers' salaries and benefits. Nationally, child care providers earn, on average, about $12 an hour, much less than their counterparts in K-12 public schools.
I am on the same pay scale as the K-12 teachers. I get full benefits. And, to me, that is a wonderful thing.
Let's get you wrapped up, shall we?
Infant lead teacher Sue Loseke is using her degree in early childhood education rocking babies. She earns $53,000 a school year, plus summer pay.
I'm just as valuable as any other teacher that's getting paid the teacher wages. We do the exact same thing.
Kate Gallagher agrees. She's the director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, one of the country's leading academic programs dedicated to studying early childhood learning and development.
You cannot educate children without caring for them, and you cannot care for children without educating them.
They are inextricably linked. Children need safe interactions, with warm, one-on-one, language-rich interactions with adults that can be provided by a variety of adults.
In Shickley, Loseke and her colleagues follow state-approved curricula for early learners, but she says that doesn't mean she's quizzing babies.
I don't have set lesson plans. They are learning to stack and use their fine motor. We can count. We can do colors. They all like to be all together.
The public school here in Shickley has provided a welcome child care solution for this small community. And some early childhood experts say public schools nationally could play a larger role to addressing child care shortages.
But surveys indicate working parents want choices when it comes to where they put kids, especially when it comes to infants and toddlers, and that's why another Nebraska town is taking a different approach.
About 160 miles West of Shickley, a meeting was recently held in the town of McCook. Those in attendance included local community and business leaders. The topic of discussion? Nighttime child care needs for staff at the town's hospital and a manufacturing plant.
What were the requirements to be able to do overnight care?
Andy Long is McCook Economic Development Director. When he started his job three years ago, he was surprised that one of the first issues he needed to tackle was child care.
Very quickly, I learned from a hospital CEO that lack of child care was really hurting our local work force.
Long and his colleagues knew they needed some help, so they turned to a statewide initiative called Communities for Kids. Developed by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, the program provides three years of technical and financial support to help towns like McCook figure out their unique child care needs and develop local solutions.
For McCook, a town of about 7, 500 people, demand for more infant care was top of the list, according to Long.
Right now, in McCook, our average household income is around $45,000. So people can't afford a whole lot for child care services.
Our centers, they have to have a ratio of one staff member for every four infants. So, on the business side, infants are kind of their loss leader, so they can get more toddlers and preschool kids, which is where they make up the gap and what they lose with infants.
The McCook child care task force came up with a way to bridge that gap and make the business of infant care more attractive for center and in-home care providers.
Last year, they pulled together a $50,000 fund from local taxes, donors and businesses. They offered monthly incentives to providers who added infant slots and one-time grants to start new child care businesses.
We have probably created about an additional 20 infant spots and about 60 more additional total child care spots.
I stopped by one of McCook's child care providers who used the fund to expand her business, Chelsey Eng. Eng purchased a vacant church last year with the help of the business incentives.
She now has slots for about 50 kids, including after-school care. And she's also caring for her own two children, who are 1 and 5. The community fund gives her an extra $500 a month for two infants.
When they put this incentive out, I think it gave people more incentive to like, OK, yes, we need to step it up and do something with the infant care, because we had tons of people in the community calling and saying, do you have spots for infants?
Eng says, even with the extra community support and some government COVID assistance over the past year, it's still tough for her financially, and she sometimes feels undervalued.
I still don't think people realize that we are your backbone. Like, without us, you don't go to work. And if the schools close, we're still here.
The national picture has been severely undervalued infrastructure, severely undervalued infrastructure, to the degree that we say, it's just day care.
Well, that's absurd. High-quality child care is good for children. We have data. We know that.
Parent Staci Dack feels her little ones are getting good care when she leaves them with Eng, even when they have a few tears during drop-off.
Dack is a 24-year-old mother of two and family practice nurse. She was struggling to find child care when she was on maternity leave with her daughter and considered quitting her job. Then she heard Eng was opening a new center with more spots, and that was her bridge back to work.
I think more people are realizing that, if us parents don't have day care, then you don't get the food on your table. You don't get the health care that you need. Everyone needs it to have some place for their kids to go while they work and make the world go around.
Back in Shickley, the increased access to child care is a much-needed help for families today, but there is already a need for even more care options.
The infant and toddler rooms are at full capacity for at least another year.
For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Cat Wise in Nebraska.
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Senior Producer, Field Segments
Kate McMahon is an award-winning producer, writer and director of documentary films, news, podcasts, print and digital stories who has received several awards and nominations for her work. Kate has contributed to more than 50 hours of national documentary and long-format news programming, primarily for PBS, since she began her career in 1998 as an Associate Producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Kate's recent work includes the ITVS short film The D.A's Dilemma (PBS, February 2021), a 4-part documentary series about behavioral science, Hacking Your Mind (PBS, September 2020); FRONTLINE: Coronavirus Pandemic (PBS, April, 2020) and three PBS NewsHour segments on the Oregon wildfires. She directs and co-produces documentaries for the PBS series FRONTLINE; independent films, digital channels and PBS stations. Outside of producing documentaries, Kate has produced and reported public radio programs for REVEAL, and written articles in Salem Reporter and Metro Parent Magazine.
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