Crossroads for childcare: Waitlists, fewer employee applicants hurt early childhood education

LIMA — The longtime director of Pandora’s Hilty Preschool and Childcare is accustomed to getting phone calls looking for daycare spots. But the clientele plan further and further ahead these days.

“I have people call me when they’re pregnant to get their child in when they’re 3 in our preschool program,” Amanda Dettrow said. “… Everyone needs childcare to get back to work. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough to go around.”

They even jokingly call it Willy Wonka’s “Golden Ticket” when an opening arrives, harkening back to the childhood classic book and movie.

Early childhood education centers throughout the region contacted by The Lima News report similar problems, with wait lists of dozens of people wanting someone to watch children during the daytime while parents work.

There’s no doubt there’s demand for childcare in the region. What they’re lacking is people to provide it, especially at the wages available, typically between $10 and $13 an hour at area daycare providers. And until they figure that out, they certainly can’t expand to meet the demand.

“Some centers have had to close down classrooms because they don’t have enough teachers,” said Rachael Reeder, the direct services supervisor for Allen County Job and Family Services. “You might get a teacher today for $10 an hour, but it really cuts into their profitability, and that teacher could go work at McDonald’s or Walmart for $15 an hour.”

Many families needing daycare are on the lower end of the wage scale anyway, with any passed-along increase in childcare costs hurting their families.

“In this case the parent(s) determine that the net income after paying the various costs (fees, transportation, time, energy, etc.) outweighs the perceived benefits of not working and remaining home with children,” David McClough, professor of economics at Ohio Northern University in Ada, said via email. “… Quite simply, if childcare is unavailable, a household cannot go to work.”

Why they do it

Nearly every sector of the American economy could complain about a shortage of workers these days. Childcare, however, has been identified as a real need so parents can get back to work.

“We’ve been screaming from the rooftops for a long time that this should not be a stepping stone or just a job. This should be a profession or a career,” said Cheryl Munson, administrator at Shawnee Weekday Early Learning Center in Lima. “When COVID happened, it shut childcare centers down. They labeled us ‘essential workers.’ They realized that, without us, the whole system fails.”

Preschool children benefit from the educational and social opportunities of early childhood education, said Angela Miller, the preschools director for Lima schools.

“I think the big opportunity is the ability to serve the 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds,” Miller said. “It’s amazing when they get into a classroom. There’s so much growth socially as well as academically, giving them that big boost before they transition into kindergarten.”

Despite the economic hardships finding help, the core mission keeps people motivated, said Christina Vorhes, director of the Center for Creative Child Care at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Lima.

“I keep telling staff to keep smiling and doing what you love, and that’s being there for those kids and their families,” director Christina Vorhes said. “All you can do is have faith that things will turn a corner and improve.”

Educational efforts

Most centers contacted said they prefer to find applicants who have taken classes in early childhood education.

Apollo Career Center offers programs in both its adult education and high school programs. The adult program was full with 22 entrants, but some of them take that degree as a stepping stone to getting a teaching degree.

“You have to get your feet wet and see if it’s for you,” said Wendy Fannin, the adult education early childhood education program manager at Apollo Career Center. “It’s not for everyone. You have to have a passion for teaching and a love for children.”

Rhodes State College offers an associate’s degree for an arts and educational technology concentration, along with a childhood development associate’s certification.

Those classes are small, averaging below 10 students in them, said Eric Mason-Guffey, dean of academic affairs at Rhodes State.

“Liveable wage is something that students do explore as they make decisions on what avenue, track or pathway they want to go down in education,” Mason-Guffey said. “I think that plays into some of the shortage that may be seen in early childhood environments and daycare centers.”

An at-home solution

Allen County Job and Family Services thinks it may have found a solution to both the low wages and the shortage of daycare providers: Convert stay-at-home parents into childcare providers.

“There (are) new stay-at-home moms (who) can’t afford daycare and come out of the workforce,” JFS’s Reeder said. “They’re my target here. They already know how to provide a safe environment for a child.”

A program allows them to bring in up to six children, giving them the opportunity to earn up to $30 per hour. Once they’re established financially, they could move from being a Type B home into a Type A home, bringing on an employee and caring for another six children.

Last year, four daycare homes opened in Allen County. Two more are awaiting approval now, Reeder said.

Step Up To Quality

One challenge for daycare centers has been maintaining “Step Up To Quality” ratings from the state. The program awards stars to programs that meet certain criteria, aimed at giving parents a sense of the qualities of facilities. Facilities must meet the standards to accept government subsidies.

“It is a lot of work,” said Lima schools’ Miller, who manages preschools at five schools. “Even once you have your five years, you’re required to do it every year. There are extra hours of training your staff has to be a part of, 30 extra hours for every two years. There are professional development plans, and we work with our parents on setting goals.”

The challenge becomes maintaining all the paperwork with limited staff. Hilty Home reached its third star before dropping out of the program, Dettrow said.

“In theory, it’s a beautiful program,” Dettrow said. “We adopted a lot of the documentation. … There’s some good in there. But for us, we had problems if we didn’t have all our I’s dotted and T’s crossed. It was taking our teachers out of the classrooms too much.”

Shawnee Weekday Early Learning Center’s Munson remains an advocate for the Step Up To Quality system.

“Thankfully we have more resources, that way we can keep up with the paperwork maybe more than some of the smaller centers,” she said.

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.