BOONE — The Watauga County Children’s Council is hoping to gain financial backing from the private sector — in addition to continued local government support — in order to fund its initiatives supporting the system of care for local prenatal to 3-year-olds.

In the last year, the Children’s Council has participated in the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, now renamed the National Collaborative for Infants and Toddlers. Crystal Kelly addressed the Watauga County Board of Commissioners in October 2018 and said then that she would be transitioning out of the role as executive director of the Children’s Council and into a Pritzker fellowship. While still serving with the intiative, Kelly is also still serving as the director of strategic initiatives for the Children’s Council.

Through the initiative, Children’s Council members have received training in understanding the true costs of childcare; fiscal mapping and establishing a children’s fund; generating state and local tax revenue for quality early care and education; and leveraging the Family First Prevention Services Act to support young children.

Kelly readdressed the commissioners last month to thank them for the $50,000 the county allocated to the initiative. The Children’s Council has been able to use this money to fund parts of the initiative, but Kelly is requesting that private donors and businesses become invested as well.

The agency officially adopted the Early Childhood Education and Development Fund with the hopes of generating matching funds to the money it received from the county. The fund is intended to collaborate with community leaders and stakeholders for a coordinated system approach with a specific focus on the targeted age group; address issues of child care quality, accessibility and affordability — both for providers and families; implement a universal family connection and referral strategy; and increase availability of evidence-based models of home visiting and parent education for families with young children with an emphasis on those impacted by trauma, poverty and addiction.

Kelly said a committee of 11 members — including people from local governments, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, medical professionals and others — will be established that will make policy and funding recommendations for the money in the fund. The top two priorities for the fund currently are the Family Connects and the child care center accreditation programs that the Children’s Council has already begun to create.

Family Connects will be a universal home-visiting program for new families conducted in partnership with the Harmony Center for Women, Watauga Medical Center, Blue Ridge Pediatrics and AppHealthCare. Through the program, all families in Watauga County would be able to receive one to three free home visits from a registered nurse that can link them to services and programs as conducting a clinical assessment of both the mother and baby.

Family Connects is an evidence-based model created by Duke University with the backing of research and vigorous evaluation, Kelly said. According to the Family Connects program, the program has been shown to improve family wellbeing, including the reduction in emergency medical care for infants and improving parent behavior and child care selection.

In addition to the funding from the county, the Children’s Council secured an additional $12,000 from the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Foundation to support the implementation of Family Connects, according to Kelly.

Family Connects will ultimately replace the Children’s Council’s existing Nurtured Beginnings program. Kelly said the council was only able to serve about 15 percent of the county’s population with Nurtured Beginnings, and now anticipates being able to serve all families with the additional partners. Family Connects will begin in Watauga in January 2020, according to Kelly.

The fund would also support the Children’s Council’s local accreditation program it launched earlier this year. The program offers professional development, technical assistance, financial incentives and high-quality trainings to child care centers.

“There’s research that links (child care center) quality to teacher education levels. While the state has some minimum requirements, Watauga County is raising the bar on that and increasing standards for child care centers,” Kelly said.

The Children’s Council currently has seven N.C. Pre-K classrooms, five child care centers and three family child care homes participating in the accreditation program as well as more than 38 teachers engaged in ongoing training and education, Kelly said. The primarily goal for the agency for the next two years is to strengthen the foundation of the child care centers that the county currently has, with a second phase in mind of expanding affordable child care options.

Kelly explained that Watauga can be classified as a “child care dessert,” essentially meaning there is not enough supply for the demand. Child care desserts are defined as communities with more than three children for every regulated child care slot, Kelly said. She added that child care deserts are common across the state and country, and there has been a pig push to increase the availability of slots. As it is now, families in the county often put their name on a waitlist to find a child care center.

“You would think that this information would shift our focus to increase the supply of slots across the county. However, when we drilled down even further, we found that we needed to start at the foundation and address the quality of the child care we already have,” Kelly said. “This is a critical component of our system building strategy and really reflects that we are utilizing an equity lens in our work.”

Ultimately, Kelly said the Children’s Council would like for the early childhood system to be funded at a similar level as the public education system. She said that birth to 5 years of age is on the education continuum, but is not currently part of the education allocation in the county budget. The Children’s Council wants to work with county to establish a new funding priority that early childhood is seen as part of that education continuum, with funding going toward family support services or teacher compensation.

Kelly said a local stakeholder group is set to meet the third week in November, and will evaluate what it has done so far this year as well as set goals for the next year.

For more information about the Children’s Council, visit www.thechildrenscouncil.org.

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