Parents have an incredibly hard time when it comes to entrusting an individual or a child care program with the safety and wellbeing of their children. Not only do parents want a safe and nurturing environment for their young ones, but they also want their children to be in high-quality settings where they can learn and grow.
Children’s brains are rapidly forming during this critical developmental period and research is backing up what many teachers already knew, that the first few years of life are the most critical. In fact, science shows us that 90 percent of the brain forms before the age of 5. The early learning program that a child attends has a major impact on the ways that her/his brain develops and the foundation that is built for all further learning. No longer is early education considered “just babysitting.”
Early childhood education is a highly woman-dominated field. In Watauga County, 100 percent of private child care centers and family child care homes are directed by women. This is also true nationwide, with about 94 percent of child care professionals being women. (NWLC calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau).
Several directors started their own business of caring for children out of an unmet need. Merry-Land owner and director Mary Stiles explains this struggle when her own children were young.
“I had recently moved to Boone from Georgia. After having a baby in 1994, I realized how difficult it is to find child care in North Carolina. The quality of child care available was below my standards,” Mary says. “After no calls from the centers that had me on their waiting list, I decided I would stay at home and open a family child care home.”
An ongoing issue here in the High Country, as well as nationwide, continues to be a lack of child care. Crystal Kelly, director of strategic initiatives at the Children’s Council, stated that Watauga County can be classified as a “child care desert, or a community where there are more than three children for every available child care spot.”As the need for more child care options continues to rise, many people are looking to the state, county and federal decision-makers to increase the amount of money getting filtered into early child education.
Amber Fairbetter, director of Sunnyside Daycare, describes funding as one of the biggest struggles in the field. From the lack of subsidy funding for children, to the low salaries of teachers and staff, early child care is a highly underfunded field.
The Children’s Council has piloted a program that directly addresses this. The Pathways to Accreditation Program provides early learning centers and family child care homes with free resources, expert trainings, supplies and materials and peer support. Financial enhancements are given to participating sites to help them to purchase needed equipment, materials, pay higher salaries to their teachers and for professional conferences for their staff. Mary explains how the program has helped her center: “We have been able to raise our lead teachers’ pay to $12 from $10 an hour. The funding from Pathways also allowed us to offer our teacher assistants higher pay rates. Our lead teachers are getting training to improve their quality of teaching through Pathways, and they pay for their substitutes! Our playgrounds have all new equipment. All our classrooms have new toys in every activity center due to the funding we are receiving from Pathways.”
The council hopes that the support, financial enhancements, high-quality trainings and teacher assistants will also encourage more early learning sites to participate in the Pathways to Accreditation Program and to encourage other individuals or businesses to start child care centers and family child care homes to address the lack of child care spots for families in our community. Pathways is unique to Watauga County and is helping to create an early education community to support not only the dedicated teachers and directors, but to ultimately increase the level of quality in the learning centers for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Equally important is supporting and valuing individual teachers and family child care providers. Quality child care does not just impact parents and caregivers of young children — it is a community issue that affects our education system, health system as well as our current and future workforce.
The Children’s Council is proud to work with these early learning professionals so that they have the support needed to do the best work they can do to help raise our future community leaders, doctors, teachers and neighbors. In order to help early learning sites operate at the level we need them to, it will require financial investments from the community, local businesses, county and state government. The Children’s Council has worked over the last year to convene a diverse array of stakeholders in our community who are actively and passionately working on this issue. If you would like to be involved, contact our office at (828) 262-5424.
"Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be."
Rita F. Pierson