Early Childhood

Limited funding means thousands of poor Indy kids won’t get preschool scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Thousands of Indianapolis families vying for preschool scholarships will be disappointed this spring. More than 4,200 hundred children applied for spots in a program that’s expected to serve about 1,600 kids.

With studies showing that whether a child enrolls in preschool is an influential predictor of school readiness and long-term success, interest in a program that covers tuition for low-income three- and four-year-olds in Indiana has vastly outpaced the number of vouchers available.

Applications dipped slightly this year — about 700 fewer qualified children applied to participate in the program since last year — but there are still far more children needing scholarships than money available to help them. That includes children who applied for both a state-funded program and one that’s a partnership between the City of Indianapolis and private donors. Both programs have the same application process

“There’s a significant gap in how many kids we’re able to serve versus how many want and need high quality pre-k,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit childcare provider and advocacy organization.

The scholarships are a big step forward for early childhood education in Indiana, which didn’t receive state funding until recently. But the number of kids served is still a sliver of the need in Marion County, which has more than 27,000 preschool-age children.

Decades of research show that high-quality preschool programs not only give kids better academic and social skills when they enter kindergarten, but also have long-lasting benefits. Low-income children who go to preschool stay in school longer, earn more money and may even be less likely to commit crimes.

There also are immediate economic benefits because the cost of childcare, which can be more than $10,000 per year, is a huge burden for low-income families, Maple said. The Indiana preschool vouchers target families earning less than 127 percent of the federal poverty limit, which is $30,861 for a family of four. The city program gives scholarships to families who make up to $44,955.

For Charlene Fletcher-Brown — a single mother whose daughter won the preschool voucher lottery last year — the scholarship has helped her afford basics, like clothing and gas.

“It’s been amazing not to have to worry about how I could afford childcare,” Fletcher-Brown said.

When it comes to preschool, Indiana is behind the curve. Before the state created its preschool pilot program in 2014, it was one of just nine states in the nation without any funding for preschool. Enrollment is also anemic in Indiana — just 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-old Hoosiers attend preschool. In Illinois, the enrollment rate is 54 percent, according to census data.

“Indiana has lots of neighbors to learn from,” said Laura Bornfreund, a researcher with the New America Foundation.

Some states are rapidly expanding their preschool programs. Some major cities like New York have made free pre-kindergarten available to all four-year-olds. Indiana is a long way from implementing a sweeping program like that, but Bornfreund said that beginning with a pilot and then scaling it up can help ensure that the preschools serving kids are high-quality.

She cautions, however, that the state needs to have a plan for ongoing expansion.

A strong push for expansion is on the horizon. Preschool advocates are planning to lobby aggressively for more state preschool funding during the upcoming session, said Andrew Cullen, the vice-president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana.

After three years of pilots, the state has learned how to reach families and improve preschool quality, said Cullen.

“We’ve have learned a lot from the pilot,” he said. “That’s what the pilot was there for, so it’s time now to talk significantly about an expansion.”

Preschool has won bipartisan support but there have been hitches along the way. The state scholarship pilot was championed by Gov. Mike Pence, who worked to win approval from reluctant legislators. In 2014, however, he made a controversial decision not to apply for up to $80 million in federal funding for preschool.

The scholarships available to children in Marion County are heavily funded by local and private sources. In addition to the state funding — $10 million across the five pilot counties — the city’s program pools government dollars with corporate and philanthropic donations that add up to $8 million a year.

That approach has significantly boosted preschool access in the city, but advocates say that for expanded preschool to be sustainable in the long-term, the state must provide more funding — not rely on corporate and philanthropic donations.

“Just like we don’t expect Eli Lilly or United Way to pay tuition for K-12, we can’t expect Eli Lilly or United Way to pay tuition for pre-k,” Cullen said. “That’s fundamentally government’s role.”

Early Childhood

To end child care deserts, it’s time to rethink care provided by family and friends, activists and experts say

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano walks with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, and her neighor's son, Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, after preschool in their neighborhood.

Weighty regulations, high operating costs and rapidly changing neighborhoods are compounding child care shortages in many of Colorado’s low-income communities.

But state and local policymakers can help by providing informal child care providers — family, friends and neighbors providers — with streamlined policies, low-cost training and a network to connect families with care, a panel of providers and advocates said Tuesday.

Recognizing how widespread that type of care is and putting a renewed value on those providers could help close stubborn academic achievement gaps that begin to appear as early as kindergarten, the panel said.

“I wish that it was an option for everyone,” said Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist who was raised by her grandmother and teared up recalling her early years. “I know there are lots of families who don’t have those networks around them to give those special experiences to the young children around them.”

Those comments were made at Chalkbeat’s “Lessons From a Child Care Desert” event. The panel featured Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist; Richard Garcia, former executive director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition; Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver; and Patricia Martiñon, a child care provider in Elyria-Swansea.

The event at the Mile High United Way followed Chalkbeat’s close look at how one north Denver neighborhood, Elyria-Swansea, is grappling with few child care options. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood is designated as a child care desert.

But the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood isn’t alone.

Nine of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, including Elyria-Swansea, are classified as child care deserts, according to data from a recent Center for American Progress report. Parts of more than a dozen other neighborhoods also earn that designation.

The report found that half of the people in the 22 states it examined live in a child care desert, which it defines as neighborhoods or small towns with either no child care options or so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

One effort to reverse that statistic in Elyria-Swansea is an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

PASO is helping 22 informal child care providers obtain a common entry level child care credential, Garcia said. But his organization’s efforts need to be replicated on a greater scale, he said.

Knowing that most Colorado children are not being cared for by licensed providers, Garcia said policymakers need to turn their attention to supporting informal providers.

“I’d put more value on what (family, friend and neighbor providers) are doing,” he said. “How do we support this type of work?”

Martiñon, who looks after her nephews, has participated in the PASO training.

“I’m realizing the challenges are many,” she said through an interpreter. “Taking care of children goes beyond keeping an eye on them. … I learned there are so many ways that I can express love to the children — and teach them, not just have them in front of the TV or computer.”

While there are several “universal” factors — including a lack of funding for low-income families to cover tuition at licensed centers — contributing to the lack of child care in Denver, rapid gentrification is adding another wrinkle, said Kantor, of CU Denver.

“The tensions that are always inside a community that is changing are very real,” she said. “You can’t take child care alone. It’s in a context.”

Flores Amaro, the community activist, agreed that an influx of new people and businesses can improve her neighborhood, but said that long-standing residents shouldn’t be displaced.

“We want everything else Denver has,” she said. “Just not at the expense of us.”

Watch the panel’s discussion here:

intervening early

Life in a child care desert: What one Denver neighborhood can teach us about solving a national problem

PHOTO: Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, an informal child care provider, says goodbye to Mateo Casillas, 2, after caring for him for the day.

Olga Montellano is kind, patient and doesn’t flinch when small children shout excitedly in her face.

On a recent afternoon, her calm demeanor was on display as she watched over her 3-year-old daughter and her next-door neighbor’s 3-year-old son as they frolicked on her front lawn in north Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

When the ponytailed mother of four heard what sounded like gunshots a street over, she ushered the children onto the porch, past a giant reading nook she’d crafted from cardboard, and into the house.

Montellano has been taking care of kids in her home for five years, ever since her next-door neighbor got a job at a factory and needed someone to watch her older child, now a kindergartener. In late November, Montellano added a 2-year-old boy to the mix, the son of a friend who’d just landed an office-cleaning job.

This kind of informal, mostly unregulated child care is a lifesaver in Elyria-Swansea, where train yards, Interstate 70 and large industrial plots share space with residential pockets that, as of now, are home to many poor and working-class families.

Licensed child care — particularly for children 3 and younger — is hard to come by here. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood has won an unwelcome designation: Child care desert. Put simply, it’s a place where the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

But a slate of recent efforts could help Elyria-Swansea shed the label — and hold implications for other communities grappling with the problem.

The initiatives, which use both public and private money, include training for informal providers like Montellano, efforts to better match home-based child care slots with families and attempts to bring new child care centers to the area.

The idea is to ease the child care scramble that plagues many working parents in the largely Hispanic neighborhood and help set up young kids for future academic success. Currently, more than half of neighborhood children — many of them English learners — aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Together, the projects represent an ambitious undertaking that could bring much-needed attention to a long-neglected neighborhood. But they’re also separate efforts with different leaders, missions and geographic reach — all unfolding as locals brace for big changes in the neighborhood.

On the horizon are a massive expansion of Interstate 70, which splits the neighborhood, and a billion-dollar overhaul of the National Western Stock Show complex. And as Denver’s breakneck growth continues, the neighborhood is showing signs of gentrification.

To those invested in transforming child care in this Denver neighborhood and similar urban areas across the country, all the changes raise an uncomfortable question: Will the families who need help still be around when the work is done?

“That’s a fear that we all have,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, one of many partners in an initiative called United Neighborhoods doing work in Elyria-Swansea.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano gets a hug from Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, as she picks him and her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, left up from preschool.

Scope of the problem

Nine of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, including Elyria-Swansea, are classified as child care deserts, according to data from a recent Center for American Progress report. Parts of more than a dozen other neighborhoods also earn that designation.

The report found that half of the people in the 22 states it examined live in a child care desert, which it defines as neighborhoods or small towns with either no child care options or so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

In Elyria-Swansea, parents cope in various ways. Some rely on nearby relatives or neighbors to watch their children. Others, if they have cars, drive their kids to child care centers or preschool programs outside the neighborhood. Some, fearing child care will eat up their whole paycheck, leave the workforce altogether to stay home with their kids.

Martina Meléndez, a single mother of four who lives in the neighborhood, illustrates the extent to which families cobble together care when affordable, flexible options aren’t available.

She works at night so she can be home during the day to handle school and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs for her younger three children. When she heads to her office-cleaning job, she enlists her college-age son to watch his siblings. On the weekends, when she waitresses full-time and her oldest son goes to his part-time job, she pays a babysitter $200 to stay at her house with the kids.

Meléndez worries about the toll the arrangement takes on her eldest son.

“I would like to be able to take care of my kids myself so that he doesn’t have so much pressure,” she said. “I know he’s going to have to concentrate more on school.”

Meléndez’s experience isn’t unique, but it is a reminder that market forces alone don’t ensure an adequate supply of child care in many communities.

That’s why quality child care needs to be understood as a public good — one that requires the same kind of public investment that pays for roads, bridges and schools, said Rasheed Malik, co-author of the Center for American Progress report.

“There’s starting to be discussions with state legislators and people on (Capitol) Hill in D.C. who are beginning to take up that mindset,” he said.

According to the report, 30 percent of Colorado residents live in child care deserts, but the problem is more acute in some communities — including those with higher Hispanic populations.

That’s the case in Elyria-Swansea, where more than 60 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to census estimates. The same is true in several other Denver neighborhoods classified wholly or partly as child care deserts, including Valverde, Athmar Park and Ruby Hill.

click on the map to enlarge

No local space

In Elyria-Swansea, a variety of factors contribute to the lack of child care — ranging from poverty to the neighborhood’s industrial roots. Amidst its train yards, warehouses and marijuana grow houses, there’s little suitable space for commercial child care — a high-cost, low-margin business.

Only Swansea Elementary School and a tiny nearby Head Start program offer formal child care in the neighborhood — a total of 81 full-day seats, mostly for 4-year-olds.

Even the federal government has picked up on the problem — earmarking the ZIP code for special consideration in grant awards for certain child care slots.

“Our challenge is facilities out there,” said Lance Vieira, chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment, which runs the Head Start program in Elyria-Swansea.

Some local families send their kids to another Head Start center three miles away in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Special busing was provided for the youngsters through last year, but that ceased for a variety of reasons, including because the program switched from half- to full-day.

In a bid to help satisfy the demand for child care, Focus Points Family Resource Center, a longtime nonprofit serving families in Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, used grant money to open up a 30-seat preschool in the fall of 2016. With no space available in the two neighborhoods, leaders settled on a facility in the nearby Cole neighborhood.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano walks with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, and her neighor’s son, Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, after preschool in their neighborhood.

Quality varies

Yadira Sanchez, a mother of three in Elyria-Swansea, knows what it’s like to struggle with child care. She still remembers sending her oldest child, Ruben, now 17, to a neighbor’s house when he was a little boy and she was working as a home health aide.

Culturally, she and her neighbor had a lot in common, and she felt confident Ruben would never be abused. Still, the boy spent most of his time on the couch and was regularly asked to share the meals Sanchez packed for him with the neighbor’s young daughter. The woman, who sometimes watched soap operas during the day, was anxious about the children getting hurt and discouraged active play.

The kind of informal care Sanchez used for Ruben — often called family, friend and neighbor care — is common in Elyria-Swansea and many other communities. Often, parents like it because they know the caregiver well, hours are flexible and it’s usually inexpensive or free.

Still, such unlicensed care is mostly unregulated by the state and quality varies widely.

Sanchez’s neighbor, who’d eventually added Ruben’s sister and a couple other children to her child care roster, stopped offering care after a few years.

“She felt like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it,’” Sanchez said.

From there, Sanchez tried a licensed home and two licensed centers outside the neighborhood but didn’t like those options, either. At two of them, the providers were cold, strict and the kids were often in trouble.

Sanchez wishes there was a child care center in the neighborhood.

Nothing fancy, she said. “Just a safe place … with people who actually love to work with kids.”

Rosemary Alfaro, who lives in Elyria-Swansea and works as a clerk for a home visiting program, yearns for the same kind of thing.

Over the years, she’s made various child care arrangements for her children. Her husband’s aunt helped out for awhile and the two older girls attended Head Start in the Sunnyside neighborhood and later the Highland neighborhood — a short drive to the west.

Today, her 3-year-old son attends morning preschool at the Focus Points center in the Cole neighborhood and her mother-in-law takes care of him and another youngster in the afternoons.

“She is my right-hand woman,” Alfaro said. “If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Members of the PASO class practice CPR and first aid during a session in July.

Expanding the pipeline

One day last summer, two-dozen Spanish-speaking women practiced first aid and CPR on rubber dummies at a Catholic church in north Denver. An instructor in pointy cowboy boots walked them through the proper responses to various emergencies — discovering an unconscious child on the ground or handling a seizure without knowing the child’s medical history.

Olga Montellano — the caregiver who ushered the children inside after hearing the gunshots — was there. So was Dolores Alfaro, Rosemary’s mother-in-law.

The four-hour session was part of an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

The initiative is just one part of United Neighborhoods, a Mile High United Way project focused on education, housing, health and workforce development in Elyria-Swansea and neighboring Globeville. It began last year and is expected to last three to five years.

The course leads to a common entry-level child care credential and represents a key strategy in the United Neighborhoods plan to address the problem of child care deserts.

The Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, one of several partners in the United Neighborhoods work, has run PASO classes in several Front Range communities for years, often enrolling mostly undocumented immigrants and paying for the program with private funds.

The course in Elyria-Swansea is a bit different. The City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development — another United Neighborhoods partner — kicked in $130,000 to cover the cost of 14 participants, all of whom are legally in the United States.

City officials say the investment was a chance to help residents climb up the first rungs of the career ladder and improve child care quality at the same time.

Once PASO ends in mid-December, more than $5,000 in federal funding will be used to shepherd some participants through the arduous licensing process that will allow them to offer state-sanctioned child care in their homes. Leaders at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, which will provide that assistance, say they’ll create eight new Early Head Start slots for children birth to 3 in the 80216 ZIP code by next fall.

Other initiatives unfolding now or launching in the near future could eventually help boost child care offerings in Elyria-Swansea, too.

One, funded partially by Gary Community Investments and set to start in spring of 2018, relies on a nonprofit called WorkLife Partnership. The group operates across Colorado, charging employers a membership fee to get help with services — such as child care or housing — that help employees stay on the job.

Liddy Romero, executive director of WorkLife Partnership, said to increase child care along I-70, where soon hundreds of construction workers and other kinds of employees will be needed, the group will award $5,000 mini-grants to licensed in-home providers. The idea is to help them buy new curricula or equipment, and figure out how to offer more slots or expand into overnight care.

WorkLife Partnership is also partnering with the national online marketplace Care.com to ensure those providers — once they expand their capacity or hours — get efficiently matched with families that need child care.

Using money from another source, Romero said the group is already working with 17 in-home providers along I-70. None of the 17 are in Elyria-Swansea or Globeville, but providers from both neighborhoods, possibly some who are not yet licensed, could be included in the future.

Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist, said with some residents leery of outsiders pushing in solutions, it’s important for leaders of all the projects underway or planned to avoid a “deficit mindset.”

They should approach the work “really honoring and respecting the experience and knowledge of child development and child-rearing that is in this neighborhood,” she said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, seated on floor, plays with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, as friend and neighbor Berenice Morales watches.

Changing city, changing neighborhood

Residents and civic leaders all see signs that gentrification is coming to Elyria-Swansea — and sending residents to Adams County, Aurora and Edgewater.

For leaders at Focus Points, one indicator was the gradual disappearance of waitlists for parenting programs that were once over-subscribed. At the Valdez-Perry library branch, it’s near-daily goodbyes staff bid to patrons who are moving out of the area.

And, of course, there’s skyrocketing real estate prices.

“The reality is these families will be offered so much money for their houses they’re not going to stay,” said Vieira, of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment. “It’s going explode in Globeville and (Elyria) Swansea will be very close behind.”

So what will come of efforts to fix the child care desert if the families — and the kids — move away? No one expects all current residents to leave, but the demographics will surely change. Some observers expect fewer large families and an influx of middle-class residents.

One check on gentrification could be new affordable housing planned for a large new development to be built on a six-acre parcel at the corner of 48th Avenue and Race Street. Leaders at the Urban Land Conservancy, which owns the land, say there will be hundreds of affordable housing units included, but the exact number will be determined when a developer is chosen in early 2018. The development will include space for local nonprofits at below-market lease rates. The first phase of construction could start in 2019, with completion four to five years later.

Sheridan Castro, the interim executive director of Focus Points, said the group will apply for some of that space for a childcare facility there. The idea is to move the organization’s preschool in the Cole neighborhood to the new development and add care for infants and toddlers.

“It would be an economic opportunity as well for members of our community and our staff who have been working toward becoming certified early childhood educators,” Castro said.

Christi Smith, the conservancy’s operations and communications director, said the need for child care in the neighborhood is well-known, but there’s also interest in using the nonprofit space for a medical clinic, a fresh food market or job training. As with the affordable housing units, the developer will make the final decision, she said.

But even if the new development does include a child care center, some observers expect families who can afford to pay for the care will scoop up many slots.

All the changes bring both hope and uncertainty for long-time residents like Olga Montellano.

She already believes the PASO program has made her a better caregiver. She gets the children in her care outside more and has learned skills and activities to help get her neighbor’s 3-year-old son, who used to be silent, talking.

But whether she stays in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is an open question. Her landlord has raised the rent, but not much, she said. She would like to buy a home, but homes that used to be affordable and small are now unaffordable and small.

“My preference would be to stay here because I’ve already lived here 15 years,” she said. “I don’t know … it seems strange to leave.”