Think of the Children

A lack of quality childcare affects both the current and future workforce, so what’s being done to provide it in New Orleans?

Ask any parent of school-aged children and they’ll tell you that the pandemic was tough for kids. Not only were many deprived of social interaction with their peers —which research says is really important for learning how to build healthy relationships later in life — but they also had to attend school virtually for a time, which meant they were learning from home.

And with working parents, it was difficult for many kids to get the benefits and attention that comes with learning from a teacher in an actual classroom setting.

This was especially true for early childhood education, a term that refers to the time from birth to kindergarten — usually around age 5 or 6. This crucial age is when many children first learn how to interact with people outside of their families, like other kids, teachers and parents. It’s also when many will start to develop interests and skills that can often stick with them for the rest of their lives.

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Studies show that the learning loss from the pandemic is staggering, and as educators have begun to focus on helping students “catch up” and get back on track, many say it’s vitally important that we make sure the youngest children are starting well, too.

“The pandemic taught us that the economy does not work without a workforce, and the workforce does not work without care for its children,” said Dr. Ronicka Briscoe, chair of the education department at the University of Holy Cross. “It is imperative that families are able to access early childhood education.”

Briscoe said early childhood education is so much more than just learning basic skills or childcare for working parents. Research has shown that it’s essential for students to succeed in life, she said.

“Early childhood education is important for academic purposes, but it’s maybe even more important for social-emotional learning and meaningful interactions with age-appropriate peers,” Briscoe said.

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And while many states and communities are working to adequately fund and support high-quality early childhood education programs that can be so valuable and formative for young children, some say these programs need to be expanded so more children — especially those from low-income families and families with working parents — can access these critical resources and educational opportunities.

“While this is an issue that policymakers, advocates and educators are actively prioritizing, and while New Orleans has made substantial progress in addressing the lack of high-quality early childhood education options for families, only about 18% of children from birth to age 3 in the city have access to quality early care and education,” said Rev. Justin Daffron, interim president at Loyola University New Orleans.

Daffron said Louisiana has earmarked millions of dollars in federal and state funding to support the expansion of high-quality early childhood education programs, but a long-term funding model is still necessary. Research shows that providing access to high-quality early childhood education programs helps interrupt generational poverty, prepare young children for kindergarten and make them more likely to graduate high school and need fewer educational supports.

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“In an ideal world, leaders and educators across the community will be able to come together and find a sustainable way to make this a reality for all children in our city,” Daffron said.

The “elephant in the room,” according to Briscoe, is that providing developmentally appropriate education and care for children starting at birth is expensive. She said there’s long been a model that pays early childhood staff only minimum wages — especially those lacking four-year-degrees — and most early learning and day care centers are open 12 or more hours, often from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“These long hours and low wages make roles inside centers less desirable and not the best havens for children in need of quality services,” Briscoe said.

Additionally, Briscoe said that while there currently aren’t enough quality options for childcare and pre-K for any demographic, families of the lowest socioeconomic status and ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families not only have difficulty securing care for their children, but they have difficulty financially accessing quality care.

And while some governmental assistance and grant-funded programs may be available for families whose incomes are below the poverty line, there are few options for ALICE families who are employed but still lack the financial resources to access early childhood education for their children.

“Historically, there has not been a concerted effort to fund early childhood education,” Briscoe said. “Many of the resources, including philanthropic dollars, have gone into K-12 education or the nonprofit sector, especially post-Katrina. We are seeing a shift here, but this shift has been slow.”

There have been efforts at the local, state and federal level to address the need for early childhood education, especially for communities in recovery from COVID-19 and natural disasters like Hurricane Ida. Last April, voters in New Orleans approved a property tax measure aimed at creating 1,000 or more early childhood seats for low-income children.

At the state level, the Louisiana Department of Education won three competitive federal early childhood grants between 2014 and 2020, totaling $72.1 million. These funds have been earmarked to expand access to high-quality early childhood programs and to implement state-level infrastructure and quality improvements.

In early 2022, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona laid out his vision for education in America. One of the priorities was “providing every family the opportunity to start on a level playing field through free, universal pre-K and affordable, high-quality childcare.”

On the local level, philanthropic organizations such as the Institute for Mental Hygiene, led by Ron McClain, have prioritized early childhood education initiatives. The same is true for the nonprofit sector, where organizations like 826 New Orleans — a youth writing organization — has received philanthropic funding to start a tiny authors program called “Wee Write” for 3- to 5-year-old children, which aims to prime early learners with key literacy concepts ahead of entering elementary school.

Local education centers have also expanded their focus on early childhood education. One unique program, called “The Nest,” is housed within The Net Charter High School, a non-traditional high school for students seeking an alternative path to graduation. By offering on-site childcare, the goal is to ensure students with children can continue their education.

All these efforts take time, commitment and money, but educators say they’re seeing more attention being put on addressing the problem, which gives them hope.

“The future of early childhood education is looking innovative, high-quality and well-funded,” said Briscoe. “Children as young as 6 weeks will have access to the best care and experiences. All children will be introduced to children’s literature, developmentally appropriate experiences and an exceptional team of educators.”

Briscoe said she envisions a future for early childhood education that is equitable and collaborative and will center on the voices of educators, parents, children and the community. It will be accessible, affordable and easy to access, with quality options available in every community.

A brighter future will also include childcare careers that provide a living and saving wage for staff and offers adaptive scheduling options that allow workers to work between 36-40 hours per week, not 60 hours.

“The work of early childhood educators is essential,” Briscoe said, “and they should be compensated like the economy relies on it.”

 

DID YOU KNOW? Child care is the single largest expense for “Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” families, which account for 57% of families in New Orleans.

 

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