By KATHY HAGEMAN
Dickinson County public information coordinator
Dickinson County plans to use funds it received from ARPA (the American Rescue Plan Act), working in conjunction with the Community Foundation of Dickinson County, USD 393 and USD 487 to build childcare facilities on school district property in both Solomon and Herington.
The need for childcare in Dickinson County, throughout Kansas and the nation has long been documented through various surveys and other assessments.
“We’ve been told this in untold meetings with the economic development corporation, school districts and everybody in between. We’ve heard and experienced all the issues caused by the shortage and how childcare affects this county wide,” Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman told commissioners during their June 30 work session.
“We want to create some type of early childhood development program in two of the school districts – Herington and Solomon – to start educating children more at an earlier age so when they get into kindergarten they’ll be prepared for it and also solve the daycare issue at the same time,” Homman said.
He presented a proposal explaining the need for daycare services in the county, looking at the short term needs for parents, while also providing a long-term solution that could positively impact the economic and physical growth of the county.
The county will use some of its ARPA funds — distributed to the county and entities nationwide to aid in the economic recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic — to build two early childhood development learning facilities. One in Solomon and the other in Herington.
The two school districts already are equipped to operate a program. The only problem is they need a facility, Homman said.
“They have room on their (school) grounds, they have the resources to employ certified people, they have human resources and payroll, food service programs that work with the federal education requirements and all the things that go with something like this and they have the administration to manage it,” Homman said.
“They already have operational programs and they have the ability to sustain it. That’s really the issue,” he explained. “There’s not a lot of money in daycare.”
Solomon currently has approximately 20 to 25 children on a waiting list for daycare, while a daycare provider in Herington has about 30 to 35 on a waiting list.
By creating approximately 50 additional childcare slots in the county (25 in Herington and 25 in Solomon), that should create space for other daycare operators operating in the county.
Currently, many families are driving to other communities for childcare.
“A lot of those people who are bringing their kids to Abilene to a childcare center here, then going back to work in Solomon, Hope or the Herington area would be able to have that need filled in those communities and open up some slots in Abilene,” Homman said.
Providing needed childcare for families also could positively affect the county’s housing shortage. Homman said he’s seeing people who are willing to build homes in the county if it’s a place where all their needs are met. However, if they do not have a means to care for their young children, moving here is not an option for them.
Homman said Chapman school leaders were involved in early discussions, but felt their school district would not benefit. As for Abilene, it was felt that community – which already has several privately-owned daycare centers plus the Head Start Early Education program – was already covered.
Homman, who has long- served on the Solomon USD 393 school board, said the district has been negatively impacted by the lack of daycare options.
One example is when it comes to hiring staff.
“There’s a challenge in hiring teachers with young children because there’s no care for them. So, they go on to work in a larger district where they have more child care options,” Homman explained.
The same is true for the Herington district.
Homman and Asst. County Administrator/Finance Director Janelle Dockendorf have been meeting with the superintendents from those two districts to develop plans.
Although the early childhood development facilities will be built on school grounds they will serve the community.
“Other employers outside of the school settings are also facing huge challenges in attracting potential employees because there simply are not enough licensed childcare facilities to meet the demands of today’s families,” Homman wrote in his report to commissioners.
The lack of daycare forces parents to either stay home and care for their children, or look to larger communities to live and work, where childcare options are more prevalent.
“That results in less growth in our county and a decreased work pool of potential job applicants for all employers, which has caused a slowed economic growth for our county,” Homman wrote.
Finding childcare has long been a problem across Kansas, but the COVID pandemic made the situation worse.
The pandemic was especially hard on what Homman calls “ma and pa” daycares where the grandparents were caring for their children.
“But in the light of COVID, a lot of those went away. Grandma and grandpa were afraid of having the kids in the house because they didn’t want to be exposed to it,” Homman said.
Besides creating needed daycare options for parents, having a childcare center run and administered by the schools will help young children prepare for kindergarten.
“Children are coming into the kindergarten environment nowadays and they’re not ready,” Homman said. “There are certain things kindergarten staff expect them to be able to do. In the last decade or so, there’s been a decline in the cognitive skills of children coming into kindergarten.”
Kids who don’t have the necessary cognitive or social skills coming in are at a disadvantage and need to catch up. Teachers then work to help those kids catch up through first, second and third grade.
However, the late start is often still evident. Standardized testing conducted at the first time in grade three exemplifies that many still are unable to perform at grade level. For some, they never catch up, resulting in lower student performance and increased drop-out rates, are more prone to becoming involved in criminal activity, and ultimately preventing them from being productive workers or members of society.
“They never get caught up. The result is a less educated pool of graduates entering the work force,” Homman said. “The only way to solve that problem is to start educating kids at an earlier age.”
Schools have tried to address the childcare and early learning void by adding after school and before school programs. Those programs not only provide a place for kids to go in the early morning hours when a parent drops them off before work and after school until a parent can pick them up, but also it gives school staff an opportunity to provide additional learning time.
Another opportunity to provide childcare and additional education time involved moving from the traditional half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten, a change many districts did on their own because the state does not fund full-day kindergarten programs.
Recently, some school districts, including Abilene and Solomon began offering preschool programs, offering both child care and education.
“Solomon had 20 slots. Those filled up instantly and there was a waiting list,” Homman told commissioners.
Solving childcare and preparedness void
Building childcare facilities on land owned by the two school districts will help solve the daycare shortage while providing extra time to prepare children for kindergarten.
“Let’s solve two problems with one collaboration,” Homman said.
Providing childcare in the year 2022 is much more difficult than it was a few generations ago.
Not only are there stringent licensing requirements monitored by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, today’s childcare providers must have advanced educational degrees.
“Under the KDHE requirements and guidelines, to be able to care for kids you have to have a bachelor’s degree. Where are you going to find somebody with a bachelor’s degree for $10 an hour?” Homman asked.
He said that parents are willing to pay for many of the costs required. Unfortunately, due to the educational staffing requirements, the costs for qualified people and the related benefits they require, the cost far exceeds the available funding to get programs off the ground.
However, with the county providing ARPA money to build two childcare facilities, the schools should have the resources to operate it, Homman said.
The next steps involve getting numbers from the contractor, then meeting with the Herington and Solomon school officials, the fire marshal and KDHE representatives.
“Then we’ll come back to you,” Homman told commissioners. “We’re going to suggest our (APRA) money be transferred to the Community Foundation of Dickinson County and let them use the paying process they already have in place to go to the schools with requirements they put into place.”
Homman said he’s hopeful that the Community Foundation would be able to help out if the ARPA funds come up short when it comes to building costs.
“We’re hoping everything will come together. The school districts are excited about it,” Homman said.
Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson commented that often problems are identified, but this is a case where the county can actually provide a solution.
Commissioner Ron Roller said he was really proud of the county for continuing to work on the childcare situation. He said the childcare/education void has been brought up during meetings he attends with other counties and most “don’t want to take that responsibility.”
Kent Campbell, the new Dickinson County Economic Development Corporation director, said he believes the idea is a “wonderful alternative.”
In the few weeks since taking the economic development job and moving to Kansas he’s quickly learned of the childcare void. Strict state regulations make it difficult for the “mom and pop” facilities to open and succeed, he said.
“We’re going back almost 20 years when they (parents) are making a decision if one is going to stay home or get a part-time job,” he said.
“I thank the county for taking a lead on that,” Campbell said, commenting he looks forward to joining the county, the schools and the Community Foundation to make the plan a success.