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What’s Missing in Early Childhood Education: A School District

The established model works for K-12, so why is it missing in ECE?

Neighborhood Villages began with a goal: do for child care what the state already does for K-12. Organize it, regulate it and most importantly, support it.

“If child care is a public good, we should create a public infrastructure to allow providers to thrive, but for free,” said Lauren Kennedy, co-founder of Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit which serves as an early childhood district for five child care centers in the Boston area.

Without a centralized system to handle complicated administrative tasks and identify opportunities, like the Paycheck Protection Program, to retain and pay staff, child care centers remain at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying afloat.

Kennedy is describing a problem that’s common in early childhood education – each child care entity operates on its own, so the directors are forced to wear multiple hats, which can be overwhelming and lead to burnout. Child care subsidies, while still not available to all who need them, are targeted toward families, and do not always cover the full cost of care. Providers are forced to rely on a business model with thin margins, low pay and staff burnout.

Contrast this with the K-12 model, in which a school district exists with protocols, dedicated funding and defined roles to carry them out in place, from Covid testing to school lunch to wraparound services for families in need, including food and housing assistance.

The lack of a “central office” for child care providers also hurts the ability for public resources to be distributed to the sites, families and ultimately, kids, who need them. An analysis of the 2020 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) shows that less than 1 percent of the loans available to small businesses went to child care providers, and less than 7 percent of the over 670,000 child care businesses received a loan.

Without a centralized system to handle complicated administrative tasks and identify opportunities, like PPP, to retain and pay staff, child care centers remain at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying afloat. After almost two years of intense pressures and frequent disruptions from the pandemic, many providers are struggling to retain staff, even when some parents are increasingly desperate for safe child care options.

“When you burn out your staff, who suffers? The kids,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy and co-founder Sarah Muncey first came to this idea when both were home with newborns in early 2016. “Having a winter baby in Massachusetts: it is wonderful but it can be grim,” said Kennedy.

Over conversations on one another’s couches, they shared the frustration that comes from trying to find quality child care solutions, and also the amazement that no better system had been created to ease what must be a near-universal quandary for working parents everywhere.

Neighborhood Villages co-founders Lauren Kennedy and Sarah Muncey

Muncey had a background in operations management in K-12 education, where she was used to having central district offices playing a role in local schools. “You would never see the principal at a school cutting fruit for school lunch,” she said. “As a parent, you’d be like, ‘something is wrong here.’ But in a child care center, it’s common to see the director or administrator serving in every single role.”

Kennedy’s background was in health policy and she saw a missed opportunity to invest in the early education care system as a high-impact delivery system. “If we talk about going upstream, a powerful location to anchor social determinants of health is an early childcare center,” she said.

After a year of ideating, the two quit their jobs to launch Neighborhood Villages in 2017. Another year of relationship building followed, while working closely with an early learning center. Their nonprofit began an embedded relationship with that center in 2019. By 2020, the organization was working with five child care centers in the area.

Here’s how it works: Neighborhood Villages takes on some of the administrative burden for the centers, serving as a de facto central office, and the centers benefit from the centralized resources. Each participating center receives funding to hire an operations manager and a family care coordinator to assist with wrap-around services for families. Each position costs, on average, between $50,000 and $60,000 annually. Without a centralized system to handle complicated administrative tasks and identify opportunities, like PPP, to retain and pay staff, child care centers remain at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying afloat. Without a centralized system to handle complicated administrative tasks and identify opportunities, like PPP, to retain and pay staff, child care centers remain at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying afloat.

Michelle Sanchez, the director of Epiphany, the first early childhood center partner, credits a willingness to dig deep and collaborate on solutions together as the reason the model works so well.

“We worked with Neighborhood Villages as they developed the positions,” said Sanchez, referring to the Family Care Coordinator and Operations Manager who help Epiphany’s staff. “We have control over who is hired and who is going to be a good fit for our center.”

Epiphany has both an early childhood center and a middle school for high needs families. The middle school is tuition-free and the early childhood center is run entirely on scholarships and child care subsidies. The two campuses are one block away from each other and previously shared staff for the wrap-around services work, in which families are connected with services beyond early education that they may qualify for and need. For example, under the arrangement facilitated by the Neighborhood Villages grant, the Family Care Coordinator works exclusively with Epiphany early childhood center and has much more bandwidth to “get ahead of issues” that are affecting those families: rent assistance to prevent evictions, utility payments to keep the gas on or job trainings to develop career skills.

“A lot of places, you tell them an issue, they print out a piece of paper and say, ‘call these numbers,’” said Sanchez. Families are left to navigate confusing bureaucracy on their own. Thanks to Neighborhood Villages, Epiphany’s dedicated family coordinator has navigated the contact names and numbers, and works closely with the families to maximize results. “She is doing the work with them, not just for them,” said Sanchez.

When possible, Neighborhood Villages assists other childcare centers in the region. Sanchez had approached Muncey about having her staff take early education classes offered by the state. Under under the current arrangement, she said, it was difficult to sign up at the times offered. So Neighborhood Villages began to serve as the enrollment hub for Career Pathways for Early Educators, which allows early childhood educators to enroll in free courses taught by community colleges, including business management courses.

When the state’s school district put in place a Covid testing regimen, the early childhood centers were left out entirely. “They said it was ‘administratively too difficult,” Kennedy recalls. So Neighborhood Villages stepped up and volunteered to be the central infrastructure to coordinate the testing for any ECE that wanted to participate.

Elliot Haspel, an education policy expert and ELN contributor, has called for the early childhood district model, like Neighborhood Villages, to be replicated in other parts of the country. Doing so would create a proactive system to help parents and caregivers alike, delivering quality care to children while paying a living wage and relieving some of the administrative burden that overtaxed parents and centers currently face.

“We have a very fragmented childcare system. In most cases centers have to go it alone,” Haspel said. “A model like Neighborhood Villages provides the central infrastructure for each child care center, while still letting the programs retain autonomy.”

Some of the fragmentation within the early childcare space can be traced back to the parallel but different ways that early childhood education and K-12 education came to be, explained Haspel. School districts began in the mid-1800s as part of the Common Schools Movement, spearheaded by Horace Mann, moving to a more centrally administered system that created the school districts in place today. “But childcare is treated as a market good,” said Haspel. “Child care programs are treated as standalone, and there has been active resistance to providing them much support.”

One significant advantage to the Neighborhood Villages model is that it’s entirely scalable as more funds and support become available to grow it and provide the additional staff members at centers. Haspel notes some other locations around the country that provide a “district model” for early childhood education, including Denver and Seattle. Such district models could be pilots for early childhood education funding that could come to fruition through the Build Back Better Act, if states are called upon to come up with plans for comprehensive, accessible ECE services. “Neighborhood Villages is piloting what makes an attractive vehicle for implementing that,” Haspel said.

In theory, the Neighborhood Villages model could be replicated in any part of the country; it’s not restricted to urban vs. rural communities or home-based versus center-based types of care. A central coordinating district can be set up anywhere and include providers both public and private. But Kennedy believes those districts should themselves be part of a broader national infrastructure for early education. “The future is not just adding more centers, it’s creating a public infrastructure model to do this,” said Kennedy.

“We know what the state can do for families when it invests in public infrastructure,” said Kennedy. “We try to band-aid different pieces of the delivery system. It will never work until we look at it as a whole, and address the fundamental pillars and building blocks of the system: educators connected to programs, families connected to programs with all of it supported by public infrastructure. This is the same way we approach and understand how our K-12 system functions.”

It was because of the existence of that infrastructure surrounding K-12 education that Muncey and Kennedy believed their plan was doable.

“We have a functional school system. People can say it’s good or bad, but we do have a school system,” said Muncey. “We looked at a lot of schools. We listened to teachers and directors. A lot of people thought it was impossible because it hadn’t been done. But if you come from health care or K-12, it doesn’t seem impossible. Enough pretending it’s impossible. Let’s start figuring out how to build infrastructure around existing programs.”

Rebecca Gale is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and a reporting fellow for Better Life Lab at New America.

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