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This is the ninth in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

quality child care
Teacher Lannie Rooks works with Drew Williams, from left, Sophie Dukes and Addison Harris, all 4, Tuesday at Lake Village Learning Center in Flowood. The center is getting help from Mississippi Building Blocks, a state-funded program designed to assist licensed child care centers to improve the school readiness of children by improving teaching and learning and strengthening parenting skills. Credit: JUSTIN SELLERS/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON, Miss. — As an administrator for Jackson Public Schools, Nancy Sylvester kept coming across the same problem: Teen mothers who missed school because they couldn’t find anyone to watch their children.

When she retired from her position as director of student services and counselors in 2010, Sylvester decided to try a different approach to tackling the issue. Using $16,000 from her savings, she started a new business, the Global Connections Learning Center, a child care center primarily aimed at serving teen moms. In addition to drawing on her own resources, Sylvester was able to get the project off the ground with grant funding that allowed young mothers to enroll their kids for free at the center, located in a Jackson-area business complex.

But, apart from some state-mandated training courses, Sylvester had no experience in early childhood education. Even with the grant, her $105,000 budget, which included salaries for four employees, was small.

Initially, she said, she struggled to pull together the right resources and materials for the center. She saved money on many of the center’s toys, furniture, and classroom supplies by buying from dollar stores or discount stores, or bringing in books and toys that her own children used when they were little. But, lacking a strong understanding of early childhood standards, Sylvester said she inadvertently chose materials that were too advanced for the preschool children she hoped to serve — things like worksheets and posters that focused more on math facts or sight words.

“I was thinking these were the appropriate things to do in order to get the children prepared for school,” Sylvester said. “I had not been introduced to all of the [early learning] standards … I had not been to any trainings by [experts] who actually know ‘these are the things that would be more appropriate.’”

Help came in 2012 through the program Allies for Quality Care, which offers training to child care employees, in-person assistance to help centers improve, and funding for materials. Allies employees often spend several hours a week in each center. Over the course of a year, the program helped Global Connections purchase age-appropriate curriculum materials, books, toys, and even shelving units. Staff members at the center received training on many skills needed in child care practice, everything from how to read to students to how to change diapers.

“There are like, 19 to 20 steps to change a diaper that we didn’t know,” Sylvester said, referring to nationally recognized procedures for changing diapers in a sanitary way that involve multiple steps for each facet of the process.

In Mississippi, child care centers are often up against the odds when it comes to offering quality care and making improvements. The costs associated with setting up and maintaining centers are hefty, but, in the state with the lowest median income in the nation, daycare centers are often forced to keep tuition exceptionally low. With less income from tuition, daycare directors struggle to buy appropriate educational materials and furnishings, or pay workers more than minimum wage. Those low wages, coupled with the state’s low minimal requirements for child care workers, make it difficult to attract and keep qualified, experienced employees.

“The higher quality the early care is, the better off our kids will be.”

A small group of organizations in the state work one-on-one with center directors, offering them guidance and resources beyond what is available from state agencies. Bit by bit, these organizations are raising the bar, if only for those centers that take advantage of their assistance. The efforts of center directors and the private groups who partner with them demonstrate that it’s not impossible for centers to provide good quality care despite financial obstacles, but going from mediocre to excellent can often take significant time and money.

Sharon Nettles, who works with child care centers as an early learning specialist at the Mississippi-based Center for Education Innovation, sees both the problems facing daycares, and the impact outside help can have. “A lot of our centers think they are providing quality care, but when we come in with different standards that they should be meeting, they realize they’re not meeting quality,” Nettles said. “We don’t fault them for not knowing, but at the same time, if there’s nobody out there to show them what quality is, they’ll always be in the dark.”

quality child care
Nancy Sylvester comforts a student at Global Connections Learning Center in Jackson. Credit: Jackie Mader

Unfortunately, child care advocates say, private groups are unable to reach the majority of the state’s 1,521 licensed centers. Beyond providing health and safety inspections and as few as 10 hours of outside training for workers each year, government agencies give centers little or no help, and that little help tends to be sporadic. Well-meaning workers may be unfamiliar with the best practices for caring for children.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi  

Research has shown that early childhood is a critical time for brain development; when children don’t get the care and stimulation they need as babies and toddlers, the impact can last a lifetime. Nationwide, child care quality varies greatly across and within states, although some states have found the political will to help boost child care quality by increasing funding.

North Carolina spent more than $137 million on its preschool program during the 2013-14 school year.

In Mississippi, the few positive signs of increased investment in early childhood education have come largely from nonprofits working to improve child care centers and from the business community rallying around the cause, said Rhea Williams-Bishop, executive director of the Center for Education Innovation and a member of the State Early Childhood Advisory Committee, a governor-appointed group that recommends improvements in early education to policymakers.

“It’s just not happening fast enough. We’re losing children,” Williams-Bishop said. “The higher quality the early care is, the better off our kids will be,” she added.” If we don’t expedite and improve what we’re doing … things will be bleak.”

Mississippi spent $6 million on its preschool program during the first two years of operation.

Allies for Quality Care, the group that helped Nancy Sylvester, started in 2010 and is run by the nonprofit Center for Education Innovation under the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Early Years Network. The program works with eight to 10 child care centers each year. Experts from the nonprofit help owners and directors of child care centers improve their business practices, increase parental involvement, serve nutritious foods, and ramp up the quality of instruction in classrooms

The program is so popular, it currently has a waiting list of 40 centers, program officials said.

Early learning expert Nettles said that center directors often don’t have the time to make necessary improvements without the help of programs like Allies, which provides training on site so workers don’t have to go elsewhere after working hours.

“Most of them don’t have the manpower because they’re playing so many roles,” Nettles said. “They’re the teacher, cook sometimes, the van driver.”

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

Some help is offered through state or state-sponsored programs. For example, free training is available through the Department of Education, as well as through a center quality rating program run by Mississippi State, and through the Early Years Network, a joint MSU and Mississippi Department of Human Services offering. The network also has 19 lending libraries — two of which are mobile — where child care employees and parents can check out resources for children, like board games, books, and science or math materials.

“Change only happens over time. It takes so many days to make sure things are becoming habit. That’s why we’re there as long as we are.”

The kind of intensive help that Allies offers is harder to find.

Similar programs include the non-profit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI), in Southern Mississippi, which invested $600,000 of private money to help improve 16 child care centers that had earned the lowest rating on the state’s voluntary quality rating program. (The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is among the funders of MLICCI and also among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Across the state, the Mississippi Building Blocks program uses a mix of private and public funds to help centers improve quality by providing scholarships for teacher training, mentors, a research-based literacy curriculum, as well as classroom supplies. April May, executive director of Building Blocks, said the program provides daily coaches for centers over the course of a school year to give intensive help.

“Change only happens over time,” May said. “It takes so many days to make sure things are becoming habit. That’s why we’re there as long as we are.”

This year, the program is working with 29 centers. “We would love to be able to reach out to more child care centers to provide them with the opportunities that Building Blocks does provide,” May said. But, she added, “more funding is needed.”

To truly raise the bar for the child care system — providing high quality child care that’s not only safe, but also prepares children to excel in school — will require a much bigger investment of resources, experts say.

quality child care
Nancy Sylvester stands in a classroom at Global Connections Learning Center. Sylvester said she was able to acquire more appropriate materials and toys with help from the nonprofit Allies for Quality Care. Credit: Jackie Mader

Some states are taking advantage of the national T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood program, which helps workers earn a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in child development and early childhood education, and the related WAGE$ program, which supplements child care workers’ salaries once they earn their degree. Mississippi used to participate in T.E.A.C.H., but stopped last fall due to a lack of state and private funds.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have established state-funded preschool programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Some states, like the District of Columbia, where preschool is free for both 3- and 4-year-olds, have invested as much as $15,000 per child. North Carolina, which received NIEER’s highest score on quality standards, spent more than $137 million on its preschool program during the 2013-14 school year. Vermont, which serves more than 90 percent of its 4-year-olds in its state prekindergarten program, spent almost $30 million that same year.

Mississippi, in contrast, spent $6 million total on its fledgling public preschool program during the first two years of operation, although the legislation that established the program requested $8 million for the first year alone.

Related: The race problem in Mississippi daycares

Legislative efforts specifically intended to improve child care have been thwarted in years past. This year, the Senate for the first time passed a bill that would improve coordination among the agencies involved in child care. The bill has been referred to the House education committee. But a bill that would have created a public-private foundation to give grants to child care centers hoping to improve died in committee.

Nancy Sylvester’s experience suggests the state will need to do more if it’s serious about improving the well-being and academic achievement of its children. Although she attended training run by the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Mississippi Department of Health, it was the additional resources provided by Allies and others that allowed her to buy better supplies and receive the individual attention from expert advisors that was key to turning her center around.

The state training sessions “didn’t compare to [having] a person coming in and spending time” like Allies did, Sylvester said on a recent afternoon at her center. “My light came on and I pulled it all together.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Next week this series will look at lessons learned from reporting the Child Care Crisis series.

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