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Dayton preschools cope with rising costs, staffing shortages and unpredictable enrollment

Mobile preschools could bring care closer to home


By Stephen Starr, Elevate Dayton


July 28, 2022


In 2015, when Kim Jarvis opened an education mentoring program for girls in Dayton, she was shocked by what she experienced. 


“We noticed that girls who were in third grade were reading at a first-grade level,” she says. “That was devastating for me to think these girls were that far along and that far behind.”


Those encounters prompted Jarvis to establish On Purpose Academy, a preschool for around 60 kids situated north of downtown Dayton. Today, as a host of new challenges emerge post-pandemic, she’s creating new ways to help families get their young children into preschool education environments – by taking the classroom directly to their doorsteps.


Lockdowns, rising COVID-19 numbers and Zoomscapes may be mostly behind us, but for many preschool providers and parents alike, the lingering effects of the pandemic – shutdowns, staffing shortages and illnesses – are still prevalent.


Rising inflation is also eating into household budgets; reports suggest that care in the Dayton area for one child can cost as much as $15,000 a year. That’s a lot, especially when you consider the median household income in Dayton is less than $35,000.


“The idea is that we would go to different communities and provide preschool where it’s needed the most.”— Kim Jarvis, founder of On Purpose Academy, speaking about converting RVs into mobile preschools


Dayton is not alone in its struggle to meet the demands for affordable, accessible preschool and child care. An April 2022 survey of 1,000 Minnesota child care providers by the Minneapolis Fed and First Children’s Finance (FCF), found that most providers are dealing with unpredictable enrollment, higher expenses, and high levels of stress and fear.


When asked how long they could remain in business under current conditions, 1 in 5 said a year or less, and half said they didn’t know.


“That’s a concerning level of insecurity across the sector,” Suzanne Pearl, FCF’s Minnesota director, said in a recent webinar on the survey. “The child care sector for years has been losing family child care providers in particular, with not nearly enough new providers starting up to replace that capacity.”


Child care providers play an important role, she said, “not only for the families they serve, and the children they care for, but that they are a foundational and critical component of our state’s economy.”


“The biggest issue is that we have hundreds of kids on waitlists across the county because even though they might have a physical classroom, they don’t have anyone to work in that classroom.”—Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Preschool Promise.


There is some help for local parents. Preschool Promise, a nonprofit that’s funded by Montgomery County and other philanthropic entities, offers sliding-scale tuition assistance to families who send their child to one of 100+ partner preschools. For the 2020-21 school year, Preschool Promise enrolled over 1,750 families, and 60 percent of children were Black or Brown. Over half are preschoolers are from families with an annual household income of less than $25,000.


“The biggest issue is that we have hundreds of kids on waitlists across the county because even though they might have a physical classroom, they don’t have anyone to work in that classroom,” says Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Preschool Promise.


“And so, that classroom sits there dark and empty because they can’t pay staff to teach.” 


On Purpose Academy, for example, is losing staff to the likes of Amazon, Walmart and fast-food restaurants that are paying wages of  $17 or more per hour, says Jarvis.


Another troubling issue: rising transportation costs. Preschool Promise and its partners, which include Jarvis’ On Purpose Academy, are looking to establish pop-up preschools to try to meet parents where they live. The model would see community rooms, like those in apartment complexes, temporarily doubling as preschool classrooms.


“Some families aren’t able to get their kids to preschool. Maybe they are working second or third shifts. There are a zillion reasons,” Lightcap says. “(This idea) helps with attendance because you’re right there where the families live.” 


Another potential game changer is a project Jarvis and Lightcap are working on that involves converting two remodeled RV campers into mobile preschools, licensing permitting. 


“The idea is that we would go to different communities and provide preschool where it’s needed the most,” says Jarvis.


Beyond the challenges wrought by the pandemic and worker shortages, advocates argue that wholescale, industry-level changes are needed to better support preschool learning for children. 


“How much is spent (by state governments) on K-12 education compared to ages 0 to five? Why?” asks Lightcap.


The answer: The state invests  $73 million each year in “high-quality preschool,” compared to $12.7 billion in K-12 education, or one half of 1 percent. In fact, Ohio ranks 33rd in the nation for spending on preschool children, according to the National Institution for Early Education Research.


“We need the community to demand that our state prioritize investment in the earliest years and to make high quality child care accessible to everyone,” says Lightcap. “We need strong community support.”


All Ohio children would be eligible for free public preschool under a new proposal backed by State Senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo).


Senate Bill 318 would establish a universal preschool program if Congress appropriates funds to help foot the bill. Under the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Act, which has yet to pass Congress, the federal government would cover the cost of public preschool in states for six years, and states would have to provide a 40 percent state by year six.


The Ohio bill is currently in the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, but Fedor isn't optimistic.


“Unfortunately, Senate Bill 318 likely will not pass. First we need Congress to pass a bill appropriating funding for childcare and that doesn't look a possibility at the moment," she told Elevate Dayton. "Even if Congress were to pass it, we still need the Ohio General Assembly to pass the bill which is extremely unlikely because Republicans have a super-majority and they have no interest in supporting and investing in our children in this universal fashion."


Fedor went on to say that free universal preschool is an economic issue, and not investing in it contributes to discriminatory policies because “failing to offer public preschool to everyone is a loss of human potential.”


“We must move this ball down the road for our citizens, our children, who are going to benefit greatly. It is just beyond me why politicians are so short-sighted in this area.” 

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