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Seeking solutions for challenges in rural child care

A report the Greater Than Minnesota Project released in July calls for increased funding, staff training and system support for child care providers in rural Minnesota.

The "community solution action plan" for Crow Wing, southern Cass and Wadena counties developed by the coalition, which includes First Children's Finance and the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations, was based upon a town hall meeting held May 22 in Merrifield.

Participants identified trends they say are impacting child care and early education in rural parts of the state, including the expense and travel requirements of training and professional development, problems retaining quality staff because of low wages, a lack of local resources that affects child care continuity and local businesses losing employees because of a lack of affordable child care options to meet demand.

Lori Elson is the owner of Little People Learning Center in Breezy Point. She opened the center 10 years ago and has since expanded the building three times. She said the center has a large waiting list.

"We've really kind of reached a point where one person can't do it anymore," she said. "I have people calling every day looking for care, and I have to turn them away."

Her business employs around 20 people during summer and 16 in the winter, and she said that although she has good luck with retention, she knows many centers do struggle with maintaining a consistent staff.

"The turnover is very hard, and that is hard for parents because they expect consistency," she said.

One solution for this, Elson said, would be to increase wages, but that it is ultimately a matter of what parents can afford for child care.

"Community wages are not high in this area anyway," she said. "(Raising wages) is walking a fine line between what parents can afford and passing it along to employees."

She said currently, assistance provided to qualifying parents through the Minnesota Child Care Assistance program is enough to cover the cost of her center's tuition, but an increase in employee wages or a failure of reimbursements to keep up with inflation could change that.

The yearly training requirement for her and her teaching staff also poses a challenge, mainly due to the lack of local opportunities. She said they are able to complete some training locally, but often have to travel to St. Cloud or the metro area to fully meet the requirements.

"We have a hard time getting hours done in a close proximity," she said. "As far as training, I would like to see more things done locally."

Elson runs a center, which represents 39 percent of available child care in Crow Wing County. The other 61 percent of child care in the county is done in home day cares. In southern Cass County, 81 percent of child care is done in the home.

Kristy Jedinak runs one of these home day cares, Caring Hands Day Care in Nisswa. Jedinak, who has offered day care services for 25 years, said she does not believe there is a lack of child care options, but that low pay prevents parents from affording the care.

"In this economy, so many people try to cross their shifts," she said, so one parent can be home with the children at all times. "By the time they get gas in their car and have to get a wardrobe to go to work, to pay for day care ... I don't think that these parents can afford it."

Jedinak said she does not have difficulty completing her required training locally, and that of the 16 hours she is required to complete, she recently completed 10 of them in one weekend in Brainerd. Home day care providers are not required to complete as many hours of training as those working as teachers in centers.

Consistency in employees is less of a problem with in-home day care providers, she said.

"I'm constant; it's always me every day," she said. "I think it's probably a little bit harder to have a child have consistency if your staff is turning over."

The Greater Than Minnesota Project examined child care demand in conjunction with input from the community.

In southern Cass County, there are 1,718 children under age 5, and 35 percent of families with children this age live in poverty. A solid majority, 77.5 percent, of families with children under age 6 have both parents in the workforce. In Crow Wing County, a total of 4,021 children are under age 5, although a smaller percentage live in poverty compared to Cass, 17.5 percent. The percentage of families with both working parents is almost identical in Crow Wing at 77.1 percent.

The approach to addressing identified challenges of rural child care is to take the framework from the town hall meeting and develop a business advisory council and several learning cohorts to begin creating solutions. The advisory council will "provide business expertise to child care business owners and identify community resources that support successful implementation of the plan," the report states.

The learning cohort, meanwhile, will consist of six to eight child care and early education programs that will act as a testing ground for identifying problems and solutions. The cohort will receive technical assistance, business consultation and training for one year from First Children's Finance and mentorship from the regional business advisory council.

The ultimate goals of the project are to strengthen existing businesses, expand availability of quality care and to increase "regional and statewide public awareness of early care and education's role in rural economic development."

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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