Opinion

A report card for Island"s preschools

By Stowe Sprague' email='Stowe.Sprague@mi-reporter.com

Community members proud of our public school system: Let's take a look at the state of the preschool and care facilities nurturing our youngest children and preparing them for kindergarten. € Demand exceeds the facilities' capacity, and the squeeze is exacerbated by two programs being evicted.

* Many centers do not have much means to renovate or meet new code requirements.

* More than half the centers seek to expand or find a site with a stable lease but despair at the lack of space, expensive and/or short leases, and zoning hurdles.

Do what you always do with a disappointing report card: understand the causes and mobilize. In this case, call School Board and City Council representatives and ask them to spearhead a cross-Island workout session. Rally business and community groups, including Boys & Girls Club, to help find solutions.

We formed MI Early Childhood Taskforce to lobby to increase the quality and inventory of preschool and care facilities. We did a comprehensive survey of the Island's directors. Amid praise for parents supporting their schools with labor, in-kind and cash donations were some discouraging stories of facilities struggling to provide positive, safe environments. About 900 kids attend a rich variety of quality programs serving pre-school children: religious-based, co-op, special needs, Montessori, and more. Their capacity, though, does not meet parents' demand. An acute supply crisis is care for infants and children under 2. With Big Bird's eviction, only two centers serve this segment. There are 24 spots for infants on the island. One director said that her 16 spots could double tomorrow and she would still have a waiting list. Another desperate need is full-day, full-year care for working parents. Only four centers offer this schedule; they serve 481 children with a waiting list of roughly 100. About 439 3- to-5-year-olds attend these part-time preschools, with about 60 waitlisted.

The supply crisis will continue to be exacerbated. Boys & Girls Club decided to focus on serving only older children (their mission) and no longer wants to lease to two programs serving more than 100 part-time preschoolers and full-time daycare children. The club's possible new facilities offer enticing activities for older children; however, their placement on school land may force the school district to displace CHILD and the second largest daycare in order to rebuild a new school to eventually meet population growth and/or reduce class sizes.

While K-12 kids sit in newly renovated facilities, many of their younger siblings seek care and education in retrofitted church basements and school sites. One center holds breakout groups in the stairwell. The city will soon unwrap a beautiful community center, including valued adult daycare programs, but it should wince at its stepsister building B which houses pre-school children -- this old building will receive only a splash of paint and a new roof, its playground remains small and asphalt trip-hazardous,. There's for-profit and non-profit centers on the Island, but the label should be little-to-no profit. The average tuition is market-rate, a monthly average for a 4-year-old of $484 for five half-day preschool, or $945 for five full-day care (that's $11,340 of post-tax salary dollars -- $15,000 for an infant), and is higher than in Seattle. Tuition barely covers operating costs for smaller programs; directors report fundraisers, in-kind or cash donations are needed every year to make ends meet. No center pays a market-rate lease nor could they be viable with one. Facilities for young children face investments in licensing paperwork, inspections and capital improvement. A swing set alone has 40 pages of rules, and code now requires a second toilet for programs with more than 15 children. Every time a program moves, it upgrades its facilities to the latest code. At least four to five programs face displacement and re-investment right now, including the ones which were forced to do so when the city rebuilt its community center but not its childcare building (the programs in that building reinvested/re-licensed when ousted temporarily and have to go through the process and investment again when returning to the site). Long-term leases are key to re-investing in the facility. Solutions will involve urging community pillars (City, School, clubs like Boys & Girls) to find or share quality space for programs, especially care centers for the very young and full-time care (church facilities are not prepared for this commitment). It requires commitment to long-term leases at rationalized rates. The business community should also investigate space options. A grant fund should be started for qualified capital improvements. Zoning requests for childcare need to be considered more carefully. Let's work out solutions that can make our community proud of the fact that we care for and educate ALL of our children. Stowe Sprague is a mom of three young children and is a member of the MI Early Childhood Task Taskforce.

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