It’s hard to tell who loves school more, Lai’Kita Buie or her daughter.
Buie’s daughter is enrolled in the 4K program at Madison Area Technical College’s Early Learning Center, as well as the wraparound service that fills in the gap between the end of school and the end of the workday.
And while her daughter loves it, asking every day if she gets to go to school tomorrow, having on-campus child care has been a lifeline for Buie.
A liberal arts transfer student, Buie lives near campus and works on campus, so having her daughter on campus also makes focusing on classes a whole lot easier. A scholarship also helps cover the cost of child care.
“I can go to school and go to work knowing that Elise is fully taken care of and in good hands,” she said. “I can study without worrying about if Elise (is getting) into something or if she’s just being a normal 4-year-old kid.”
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MATC, also known as Madison College, has offered child care for more than three decades at its Truax campus near the Dane County Regional Airport and at its former campus Downtown.
But given the constant shortage of child care, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators are scrutinizing their options for expanding child care opportunities for Madison College students.
Since 2012, Wisconsin has lost 43% of its child care workers, almost twice the rate of the national average. Rural areas have felt the brunt of the loss, which equates to 12,000 child care workers.
Access to child care on campus is a key to student retention, President Jack Daniels said. Without it, students with children are at a disadvantage to becoming skilled workers.
Students who are parents have some of the highest dropout rates. Reports show nearly half of all student parents drop out before receiving their degree, with higher rates of leaving if they’re enrolled in a community college.
“If, in fact, you can’t provide quality, good child care, they’re not coming to class,” Daniels said. “The big thing is, is that if you have a child, you do not want to send the child someplace you have no confidence in.”
Long waiting list
Children’s needs were at the forefront of the design of the current Early Learning Center, which sits just north of the Truax Gateway building in the former Penske Trucking building, which was gutted down to its studs and frame.
The new building, which opened in 2021, has room for twice the number of children its predecessor could accommodate, making it possible to accept infants to 2-year-olds for the first time and to add a preschool classroom. And there’s even more expansion room to come: Half of the center is serving as overflow space for other Truax-based departments that have buildings currently under renovation.
Even with the new building, the waitlist for the center at Truax is nearly twice as large as the list of enrolled students.
Around 90 children sit on the waiting list for 50 spots, Early Learning Center director Donna Jost said. The list consists of children whose parents are MATC students, who make up 75% of the Early Learning Center’s enrollment, as well as the children of college employees and community members.
Waiting lists are bittersweet, Jost said, because while it means that people recognize the work the Early Learning Center does, it means others aren’t having their needs met.
It’s hard to turn away families who say they won’t be able to start or continue school without child care, she added.
“I look at those 90 names on our waitlist and recognize that a whole bunch of those are students who don’t have access to our program, who are struggling to figure out how they’re going to pay for child care, who are either not starting school or dropping out of school because they haven’t figured out how to arrange for care that they trust,” she said.
Beyond the Truax campus, MATC is mulling child care facilities at its Goodman South campus on the South Side, as well as at its rural campuses in Fort Atkinson, Reedsburg, Portage and Watertown.
The Goodman South campus replaced the Downtown campus, which was vacated in 2019.
When administrators built the South Side campus three years ago, they anticipated a significant need for child care.
“The college built there to make the education accessible, take out some of the barriers to that access for the greater South Side,” Jost said. “So now the second barrier that’s in the way is, ‘Well, what do we do with child care?’ That’s the next step in that process as we continue to grow that area.”
Space is tight at that campus, which is fairly landlocked.
But, Jost said, the South Side is a desert for child care, and MATC has a preliminary timeline to build a facility at that campus within two years.
For the rural campuses, MATC will tap into a $2.9 million Workforce Innovation Grant to examine what role it could play in helping fill gaps in services.
MATC students don’t take child care access for granted.
The Early Learning Center makes it possible for nursing student Sarah Forss to stay enrolled in school.
MATC’s nursing program got Forss out of a rut at the onset of the pandemic, she said. She previously worked as a massage therapist to make ends meet and relied on her mother to watch her daughter three days a week.
But her mother deserves to be a grandmother, not just a babysitter, said Forss, who added that it doesn’t make sense to use all of her income on child care while saving nothing for retirement.
Like Buie, Forss has a scholarship to help pay for child care as she seeks a nursing degree to obtain higher wages in the future.
“I get to grow as a person, and (my daughter) gets to grow as a person, and just get out of this cycle,” she said.
Buie said there aren’t a lot of other chlid care options near campus. So, without the Early Learning Center, she’d be spending a lot of money getting herself and her daughter around town.
“There are some other facilities here in Madison, but they’re not a five-star and they’re kind of out of reach,” Buie said. “Being within walking distance of my education facility is amazing.”
Daniels said the second half of the Early Learning Center building is expected to be usable within a year and a half.
Goodman South’s planned child care center, though, is on a slightly longer time frame. It’ll involve finding a space nearby and require someone to sell within MATC’s price range. And administrators want to pay for it with fundraising dollars, rather than a referendum, Daniels said.
Ideally, planning and fundraising an estimated $20 million would be wrapped up by summer 2023 so a facility could open in fall 2024, Daniels said.
Any future expansions also could include child care centers at each of the rural campuses or alternative care via partnerships in those communities. Currently, MATC relies on connections with providers and nonprofits to help students find child care.
“We’re just starting those conversations to think about what is really the need in Reedsburg versus Portage — because each of those communities have different needs, and different numbers of adult students,” Jost said. “We’re trying to figure out what might be the best.”