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Mississippi Department of Education
The child care resource and referral center in Jackson, Mississippi announces its impending closure. The state will terminate its contract with the network that runs this and 15 other centers across the state on December 31. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

This article is the 13th in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

GRENADA, Miss. — The child care resource library in this small town is housed in what residents call “the purple awning building.” On any given day, parents or child care center workers browse for dress-up clothes, board books or foam blocks. They’re taking advantage of a state-funded program aimed at bolstering early childhood development, and they come to the Grenada child care resource and referral center not just to borrow educational materials, but also to receive free training in health, safety and child development offered to child care providers or to attend classes for parents.

On December 31, the resource library, training and all the other resources at what’s known officially as the Grenada Early Learning Advantage Center may vanish when the Mississippi Department of Human Services terminates its contract with the Early Years Network. The department is rearranging its budget to meet new federal child care requirements and the network, based at Mississippi State University (MSU), will be shuttered. It’s unclear if the 16 child care resource and referral centers it operates across the state will be replaced.

Mary Staten, the owner of Miss Mary’s Little Learners in Grenada, doesn’t know what she’ll do without the local resource center. When she hires new employees, she brings them to the center for state-required fingerprinting, performed for free. All her 19 employees receive 10 hours of annual state-mandated training at the resource center. Four have already received their Child Development Associate credential — at no cost — through the center, and several more would like to do so, Staten says. Teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds at the preschool go to the resource and referral center “just about every two weeks” to check out new toys or games for their classrooms, Staten added. She encourages parents to do the same for their homes.

“We really love it and we hate that it’s leaving,” Staten said. “I’m really going to miss it.”

Many center directors and early childhood advocates in Mississippi are shocked at the Department of Human Service’s decision to close down the Early Years Network, and confused about whether and how aid will be distributed to centers and families in the coming months, particularly in rural areas. The state has not announced what will happen after the contract ends to assure services will continue for the child care centers that rely on help from the Early Years Network, but the Mississippi Community College Board is working to ensure the seven centers located on community college campuses stay open next year.

Related: Is Mississippi’s child care system backsliding?

In Mississippi, the state with the lowest median income in the nation and one of the highest child poverty rates, child care centers often struggle to obtain resources, maintain facilities, recruit qualified employees and pay those employees a rate that encourages them to stay. Many centers rely on small nonprofits or the Early Years Network to boost quality and ensure kids are safe, healthy, and receiving the stimulation needed during a critical time of brain development.

“It’s going to leave a very big void … I don’t think people really understand how valuable the Early Years Network was.”

The network is also in charge of the state’s voluntary but controversial quality rating and improvement system, which is designed to give parents more information when choosing a child care center and to help centers improve. That program will end on December 31 as well.

Officials from Human Services say the decision to close the Early Years Network is purely financial. More stringent requirements under the reauthorized federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program put a strain on the budget, said Cathy Sykes, deputy administrator for the Department of Human Services. The grant helps low-income families afford child care and helps states improve the quality of the sector.

The Early Years Network was awarded $16 million from the state this year, according to Sykes and had asked for additional funding next year. (By comparison, the Health Department, the agency responsible for licensing child care centers, had a budget of roughly $2 million in fiscal year 2016 to monitor health and safety regulation compliance.)

Mississippi Department of Education
The Grenada Early Learning Advantage Center will have to return about two-thirds of its supplies to Mississippi State University on December 31. The community is trying to figure out how to keep the doors open with limited toys, books and games for parents and child care workers to check out. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

The state has provided limited information about what, if anything, will replace the Early Years Network. A November statement from Mississippi State University said the Department of Human Services “will assume full leadership of these programs” and stated MSU and MDHS will work together “to seek solutions that keep the flow of services from being interrupted during this orderly transition.”

The Governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the decision to terminate the contract.

The Early Years Network is featured prominently in Mississippi’s application for federal block grant money, listed as one of the major agencies that will help the state accomplish the grant requirements. State officials have not announced how it will amend its plan. The federal Office of Child Care at the Administration for Children & Families will closely monitor the state to ensure the requirements of the grant are met, according to a federal source.

Although the EYN got the budgetary axe, Mississippi is continuing other child care improvement efforts. Another body frequently mentioned in the state’s grant application is the State Early Childhood Advisory Council, or SECAC. The group — which will not be eliminated in the New Year — was created in 2008 to coordinate early childhood programs and resources in the state and make recommendations to state agencies to improve child care and early education. At a November meeting of SECAC’s Early Care and Learning committee, members discussed multiple long-term plans to raise the quality of childcare across the state.

Suggestions at the meeting included raising standards for centers by asking that child care providers use evidence-based curriculum or that full-time directors have a bachelor’s degree in early education. Members agreed any additional standards would be voluntary. The group also discussed the difficulty the state will face in helping financially strapped centers reach higher expectations. A SECAC subcommittee recommended the state create a central system to monitor child care employee professional development and ensure quality.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Meghan Tooke, project director of the Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance — who had driven three hours to attend — asked what would happen to centers that relied on Early Years Network training in the immediate aftermath of the network’s closure. Sykes, the Department of Human Services deputy who is also a member of the SECAC subcommittee, said that the department would be looking for ways to provide those same services “without huge cost.”

In October 2016, the Early Years Network conducted 52 parent education programs and held 168 face-to-face child care training sessions with 2,833 people.

Tooke said the centers she works with are “scared” of the uncertainty in the coming months.

“That’s good honest feedback and we need to hear that,” said Committee Chair Ed Langton, who is also CEO of Grand Bank “It’s going to be some tough times to get to where we need to go. It’s not a paved road for sure.”

Tooke was not given a clear timeline for the replacement of Early Years Network services at the meeting.

Sykes, contacted after the meeting, said she was unable to provide information to The Hechinger Report. “Since nothing is official at this time about processes beginning January 1, I’m not at liberty to discuss those plans,” she said in an email.

Child care centers will not be left without any assistance after the Early Years Network closes at the end of the year. The health department has free child care training for instance, although it is more limited in scope and focuses predominantly on health and safety rather than education. The state also has available dozens of approved private trainers who can conduct training sessions, but centers must pay to attend. Other state-funded groups and non-profits work with individual centers to help improve quality.

Child care workers in rural areas said the limited number of locations in which training is offered by the Health Department is inconvenient, often requiring them to drive several hours to attend. They say the Early Years Network, with resource centers scattered around the state, has made it easier to attend training sessions and obtain educational resources. In some cases, the network also sent coaches to work with individual centers.

Related: How to make improvements to Mississippi child care

In October 2016, the Early Years Network held 52 parent education programs and conducted 168 face-to-face child care training sessions with 2,833 people. Employees did 621 hours of center-based technical assistance and 137 hours of technical assistance at unlicensed home providers. Unlicensed centers have even fewer options for free help than licensed centers.

Christina Fletcher, owner of Chrissi’s Kids Learning Academy, a home daycare in Hazlehurst, said the Early Years Network helped her center flourish. She earned a director’s license through the network and would be earning her Child Development Associate credential in January if the network was not being shut down. The network stocked her classrooms with blocks, tables and chairs, and, since 2014, Fletcher has received visits every few weeks from a network mentor who helps her with everything from lessons on how to run a small business to planning the curriculum for the five children she watches each day. She goes to the local resource and referral center to get posters laminated, make copies, and get help with creating classroom materials.

Fletcher said she cried when she found out the network was going to be shut down. “It’s going to leave a very big void,” she said. “I don’t think people really understand how valuable the Early Years Network was.”

Some resource and referral centers that have seen the benefits firsthand are looking for a way to keep their doors open without support from the Early Years Network.

Related: High turnover and low pay for employee may undermine the state’s child care system

William Lewis, president of Pearl River Community College, said that he originally planned to use volunteers to keep the college’s year-and-a-half-old center open on a limited schedule.

However, he said he received a letter in November informing him that the Mississippi Community College Board would take over some or all of the centers on their campuses. Andrea Mayfield, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board confirmed in an email that they “are working with our constituents on a plan to ensure Community College R & R sites are operational.” She declined to answer questions about where funding to run the centers would come from or what services the centers would continue to provide. “We have no details at this time to share,” she said.

Lewis is hopeful his center will be among those kept open by the Board, but says they’ll return to the volunteer plan if need be. “We think those resource and referral centers are a valuable asset to the communities, particularly in rural communities in Mississippi and we’re going to do everything within our power … to keep our center open,” he said. “We’re just in limbo waiting to hear.”

In Grenada, the center that Miss Mary’s Little Learners relies on will also do its best to keep operating, according to Deborah Bailey, chairman of the Grenada Community Foundation. Since July 2014, the Grenada Early Learning Advantage Center has had 2,427 visitors who checked out 2,785 items. Staff have conducted 235 training sessions. But the center will have to find another source of money to pay rent and will be required to return about two-thirds of its toys, books and games to the Early Years Network at the end of the year. The remaining supplies were donated by the community and belong to the Community Foundation.

In November, as network employees continued to follow the training schedule for parents and child care employees, they were also trying to decide when to stop loaning out items so they’ll have time to pack everything up. If the group can pay the rent, Bailey still needs to find the money to pay someone to come in each day so community members can check out the limited supplies that will remain come January.

But the training will come to a halt without additional resources. Bailey and others say it’s hard to explain exactly how large the impact will be. “It’s a difficult concept to get across — it’s not like a building will be gone or a classroom will be gone. It’s an intangible thing,” she said. “If we leave the child care centers without backup resources, some of them will of course do fine, but some of them will really be seriously hurt by their inability to call on this support.”

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