In the “desert of child care centers” of Indiana, a neighborhood adds spaces


When Sarah Nordin arrived to drop off her 3-year-old son for his first day of kindergarten in 2018, she received an unexpected notice: The daycare was planning to close in two weeks due to a staff issue.

It was already Nordin’s second choice after the family’s beloved first home daycare closed a few months earlier. Now she would need to find a third option in her small town in northeast Indiana.

“I thought I was going to have to quit my job,” Nordin said. “I called the family members sobbing, ‘I don’t know what to do’. ”

The stress of finding child care is familiar to working families across the country, but it can be particularly acute in rural areas like Kosciusko County, where sparse populations make early learning programs expensive to operate. and rare.

Known as the orthopedic capital of the world for its medical manufacturing industry, Kosciusko County was short of around 2,000 seats for its childcare needs in 2018 after several programs closed, according to research from its chamber of commerce.

Some parts of the community have even won the designation “childcare desert” from Early Learning Indiana, an advocate for statewide early childhood education, which meant children outnumbered 3 to 1 available seats and the region had a robust economy.

This led the Kosciusko County Chamber of Commerce to develop a childcare program incubator known as LaunchPad to begin rebuilding capacity, said LaunchPad executive director Sherry Searles.

“We see this as an issue of economic development,” Searles said.

The community works together to add seats

The “childcare desert” label ultimately allowed the chamber to qualify for a $ 75,000 grant in 2020 from Early Learning Indiana, kicking off an effort to add more seats at Wawasee schools in Syracuse, the smaller northern part of the county which suffered from a particular problem. shortage of daycare centers.

Jennifer Phillips, District Special Services Director, led the effort, inspired by her own experience.

As a new teacher in need of child care for her baby daughter, Phillips had to drive 60 minutes round trip to drop her daughter off at a daycare center in the nearby town before starting her day teaching at Wawasee schools. At the time of his search, there were only eight licensed child care seats in town.

Families across the region shared stories similar to Phillips’: they left their children with neighbors, or had parents watch them until the school bus arrived, or worked fewer hours to get home. at home a little earlier. During the pandemic, a parent should stop working outside the home, she said.

“It’s not always quality care,” Phillips said.

The district opened its first programs in 2020, one for the public and one for children of Wawasee school staff – but not for Phillips’ daughter, who had started kindergarten by then.

“I knew the importance of child care for the children of our employees and for the community as a whole,” said Phillips.

Wawasee Community Schools now offers a preschool for 3-5 year olds in the three elementary buildings, a room for the first hours for children of employees of a large local manufacturer and an infant care program and all. -small that few other districts have ventured into. for a total of 96 additional seats.

Because the programs operate within a public school, they can accept assistance such as the Government Child Care and Development Fund and Bonds, Phillips said. Each program is run by a teacher and a paraprofessional, and all but one have a waitlist this year, Phillips added.

The district’s 16-place infant and toddler care programs are in the process of getting their licensure, she said, but are currently due to close one day every ninth day of operation. . Yet these too have waiting lists.

A local employer is mobilizing

In August, a major local employer also entered the child care scene.

Polywood, a Syracuse-based furniture maker, has agreed to sponsor 20 child care spaces at Wawasee schools for the children of employees, Phillips said.

Ryan Zimmerman, director of human resources at Polywood, said the company evaluated options after employees regularly struggled to find a daycare nearby.

“We are a growing business and we often met people we wanted to hire or had hired but who were having childcare issues by then,” Zimmerman said. “They had a family member or a neighbor looking after their kids and then something happens and that person isn’t available or gets a job. And then they have a dilemma.

The company had previously considered offering its own program, but faced challenges of space, overhead and utilities, as well as providing quality early learning.

“We are a manufacturing company. We’re not in the child care business, ”Zimmerman said.

“With a school, they are the experts in childcare, in the management of children.”

Wawasee’s Polywood Classroom offers on-call services starting at 4:30 a.m. before the manufacturing plant start time – non-traditional hours that are even more difficult to find among service providers. keep. The company pays $ 40 per seat per day, which subsidizes the cost to employees.

The company believes it will see a higher retention rate through the program, he said. For the 10 employees who currently use the daycare, Zimmerman also noted that absenteeism was non-existent.

“When they have a stable, reliable and consistent option, they will be stable, reliable and consistent employees,” Zimmerman said.

Kosciusko still needs more seats

If there is a positive side to the pandemic, it could be that more employers have realized the urgent need for child care services among their workers, said Maureen Weber, CEO of Early Learning Indiana, after the School closures and COVID exposures have had an impact on family schedules.

“I’m talking to rooms full of employers trying to figure out how to provide meaningful support to their own employees as well as the community at large,” Weber said. “It has become clear that this is very important.”

And while school districts in Indiana are increasingly offering preschool programs, it’s still rare for a district to jump into infant and toddler care like Wawasee has done, Weber said.

The model works well for infant care because it relies on the trust that public schools have in a community, as well as their existing resources, Weber said. The cost of running the programs is one of the main obstacles to expanding access to these programs, and doubles for rural areas with less concentrated populations.

“They can, at the same time, be too expensive for families to pay for care and not charge enough to fund the full cost of care,” Weber said. “It creates quite a conundrum.”

Early Learning Indiana gave Kosciusko County an overall score of 51.6 out of 100 in an August report on access to early learning in the state of Indiana, a score influenced by the county’s low childcare capacity and lack of choice.

The report, which uses data from prior to the opening and expansion of Wawasee’s school childcare programs, specifically lists areas served by the district as the least accessible.

“It’s hard to leave your baby with someone”

Sarah Nordin, who faced a childcare dilemma after her two providers shut down, found care for her children with her family until the Syracuse Elementary daycare opened.

“Knowing that I have good child care allows me to do a much better job,” said Nordin, who works for the district as a special education paraprofessional.

Before the Wawasee programs opened, kindergarten teacher Shanelle Werstler also relied on the family for child care, including her stepmother who retired when the family couldn’t find another one. daycare provider. Some cited an insurmountable cost, Werstler said, or a waiting list of almost two years.

Werstler said she jumped at the chance to bring her kids to Syracuse Elementary daycare for one of the most affordable rates around – $ 25 a day. Her daughter loves going to “big school,” says Werstler, where she learned to write the first letters of her name.

The need to develop academic and social skills also prompted parent Nicole Rodriguez to seek preschool for her son, who was struggling in social situations. The program allows him to focus on his full-time work remotely, with the option of reaching his son’s teacher by text message if necessary.

“It’s reassuring that if something happens I’ll get a call right away,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s a relief to have all this time to be able to work, without having to go get it.”

Wawasee High School teacher Hannah Pawlicki also couldn’t find another childcare option nearby – some only offered part-time childcare, which worked well for some. other families she knew, but would not work for her and her husband, also a teacher.

With an option on campus, Pawlicki said she enjoys watching her children progress.

“It’s hard to leave your baby with someone,” Pawlicki said. “Having both children in the building, on the same schedule – we feel really lucky to have had this opportunity in our community. “


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