Toddlers teacher Patty Morris, right, works with Jordyn Bough, 2, left, Jaylah Bough, 2, center, and Nova Bell, 2, right, at St. Vincent Early Learning Center in Evansville on Wednesday morning, July 7, 2021. Staff photo by Denny Simmons
Toddlers teacher Patty Morris, right, works with Jordyn Bough, 2, left, Jaylah Bough, 2, center, and Nova Bell, 2, right, at St. Vincent Early Learning Center in Evansville on Wednesday morning, July 7, 2021. Staff photo by Denny Simmons
EVANSVILLE — Amid a shortage of workers, a transition back to in-person work and some childcare facilities still recovering from previous COVID-19 shut-downs, there are a number of reasons why childcare and early learning are at the center of debate both at a local and national level.

It has been 103 years since the Spanish Influenza and the First World War positioned Evansville’s women as a vital component of the workforce and highlighted the importance of quality and readily available childcare in the community.

A May report on early learning, funded and released by the Welborn Baptist Foundation, says Evansville’s workforce and families are once again grappling with a lack of access to childcare.

The report calls for expanded investment in high-quality early learning programs in Evansville and Vanderburgh County while pointing to four areas of focus:

• Family Engagement – Helping families understand the importance of early learning and equipping them with best practice parenting tools
• Provider Effectiveness – Equipping early learning providers with the tools to create high-quality learning settings
• Affordable High-Quality Enrollment – Providing scholarship resources towards efforts to make high-quality learning environments more accessible to families
• Academic Supports – Funding programs by schools, church and community organizations focused on narrowing the learning gap among elementary school students

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The study found that there are 13,000 children under 6 living in Vanderburgh County with 75% of them living in households where all parents work. And the average cost to send a child one child to a high-quality childcare program is about $8,000, similar to the cost of a year of in-state tuition.

According to the report, half of those are enrolled in a program license or registered with the state, the other half are being cared for in an informal setting, like by a family member or neighbor, but where the quality of care and education is unknown.

One-fourth of young children in Vanderburgh County live in a “child care desert” — a neighborhood with very few child care spots based on the population need. And there may be times when a family can locate a program but it may not be of high-quality or affordable.

Statewide, high-quality early care and education is defined as one rated Level 3 or Level 4 on Paths to Quality or one that has been accredited by an approved national organization. In these programs, teachers guide children through an educational curriculum supporting their development.

In Vanderburgh County, almost one-third of young children who need care are enrolled in one of these high-quality rated programs, according to the study, meaning two-thirds are not.

COVID made childcare gaps more evident

Valerie Bostick, Executive Director of the St. Vincent Early Learning Center, pointed to the pandemic as producing unexpected consequences in early education.

“I think COVID brought to the forefront, these issues,” Bostick said of the gaps in childcare. “Wherever the weaknesses were, it became evident very quickly.”

In response to similar circumstances in 1918, the Ladies of Charity filled the childcare gap in Evansville by establishing the St. Vincent Early Learning Center. While St. Vincent and other childcare facilities like it are still open today, the report showed the industry also faces low wages for workers, high demand for care and need for more comprehensive and flexible programs.

Bostick pointed to the gap between the amount families can afford for childcare tuition versus the actual cost of care as an issue complicating solutions.

“It is a complex issue because there is a lot of braided or leveraged funding that helps support the work we do. The true cost of care is not covered by tuition, and some folks, depending on their income level, can’t afford just the tuition,” she said

Bostick spoke about several ways the learning center covers the gap in costs.

“Two-thirds of our enrollment is leveraged funding from other sources. We’re a sponsored work of the Ladies of Charity then the Daughters of Charity. They provide tuition assistance as well, and one-third of our families fully pay the tuition. Even with all of that, it doesn’t cover the true cost of care, so we write grants, and we have pledge drives,” she said.

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Cara Mossberger knows the challenges of finding available, quality and affordable childcare first hand both as a parent and a childcare provider. She is a headteacher at an Evansville childcare center and mother to a two-year-old son, Cole.

Because of the cost of tuition, Mossberger had to find childcare outside of where she works. She wanted a high-quality, flexible and conveniently located daycare for Cole but struggled to find one she could afford and with openings located close enough to where she lived or worked.

“That was the hardest part,” she said. “The West Side is most convenient for me traveling, but there are very few childcare centers on the West Side.”

Mossberger said that while access to childcare for kids older than Cole is easier to find through a preschool, “the hardest thing is finding infant care.”

In response to issues like Mossberger faced and raised by Bostick, the Welborn Foundation partnered with Transform Consulting Group to create the Early Care and Education Coalition of Vanderburgh County. Committees consisting of volunteers from across the county were formed within the coalition to tailor the report’s solutions to local needs, said Patrick Jackson, the Early Learning Program Officer at Welborn.

Recommendations for moving forward

The report created five recommended strategies for community leaders to consider implementing based on local data and national research that "will support children, as well as the current and future workforce."

• Expand early learning access to more young children.
• Explore shared services and other business supports.
• Target investment in at-risk neighborhoods.
• Explore implementing a two-generation (2Gen) approach y creating programs for young children and their parents.
• Study the full costs of implementing these recommended programs. Create funding models by identifying existing and new funding sources to cover costs.

Lora Stephens, a project consultant for Transform, said the report and its findings are meant to inform strategies that could be developed in the community to help increase access to high-quality early learning.

"Now, the coalition works to drill down on what those strategies will be and what would work for our community,” she said.
 
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The committees are divided to focus on each of the recommendations made in the report with funding to be included as part of each plan.

4C of Southern Indiana is a community resource for childcare services partnering with Welborn Baptist Foundation in effort to meet these needs. President and CEO of the organization, Aleisha Sheridan, said early learning is an important issue for the community.

“Eighty-five percent of your brain is developed by the age of three. Everything that you put into a child before the age of three reaps benefits for the rest of their lives,” Sheridan said. “Children usually say their first true word when they turn one, but before they say that very first word, they understand up to 1,500 words.”

A focus on early childhood education and care not only supports the current workforce by providing child care so parents can work but it also helps the child build a strong foundation for success in their future lives and careers, according to the study, leading to better success and outcomes throughout the child's elementary and secondary education.

Stephens said they plan to communicate with the community as they continue to address gaps in childcare locally but don't expect to provide recommendations for next steps for several months.

Encouraged by Welborn’s vision, Bostick said the goals of the Welborn Foundation are the types of changes she hopes to see for the community.

“What Welborn Baptist Foundation is doing by creating the space to talk specifically about early childhood education, is a big step in the right direction because it’s engaging with the employers. It’s starting to pull them in, in a formal way, to look at how we can continue to leverage funding, to raise the bar of the experience in Evansville for working parents,” she said.

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