Even with locally funded federal programs, pre-K staffing results in waiting lists for many families
Across Multnomah County, 492 preschoolers are on waiting lists for four Head Start and Oregon Pre-K providers, according to the state’s Early Learning Division. It’s part of what makes Oregon a “childcare wasteland.”
But the problems are not space or money.
The problem is the lack of staff.
To highlight the shortage, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici visited a Neighborhood House Head Start program in northwest Portland in April. The legislator, whose district includes parts of Southwest Portland, sat in a small chair as she read aloud to a handful of preschoolers. To his left, a child peered over a pillow-lined nook in the corner. To her right, a teacher worked with children at a table full of flash cards and toys across a room.
“A lot of research shows that investing in early childhood education is such a good investment because it really gives children a head start in life,” Bonamici said, touring the Neighborhood House facility. “What could be better? It reduces what we spend on our K-12 system and it’s really better for the kids, better for the families on their journey through the school system.”
Toys, learning and staff-guided play time are crucial for early childhood development, but many Oregon children don’t have access to them.
Staffing issues everywhere
The Head Start child care and early learning center Bonamici visited is one of 30 in Oregon and one of 23 with a waiting list because there are not enough staff to accommodate the number of families in need. These figures do not include the Head Start migrant and seasonal and Alaskan Native/American Indian Head Start programs in Oregon.
Across the River, Caitlin Curtis is an early childhood educator and attorney who oversees the Head Start program at the Neighborhood House location in southwest Portland, one of two in the area. .
“We have a waitlist for our two Head Start centers (Northwest and Southwest) and we also have a waitlist for our Head Start class located at Markham Elementary,” Curtis said.
About 30 families are on waiting lists for these programs.
“We are not at full capacity, most of our classrooms are not fully enrolled, and both of our centers have classrooms that are not even open because we are unable to staff them.” , Curtis said. “Our longest waiting list is for infant and toddler classes, we are hoping to open a second toddler class to meet this need, but we cannot do this until next school year. our location at Markham Elementary, we are looking to rent another room for the next year because the waiting list is so long, we want to be able to serve more families.”
The pandemic has exposed the vast shortage of child care and resurfaced an issue that has plagued working families and women in particular for decades. Without access to childcare or preschool, mothers are often forced to stay home with young children. Even before the pandemic, the cost of child care was a deterrent to low- and middle-income households.
During a recent briefing to Multnomah County Commissioners, Brooke Chilton-Timmons, an analyst with the county’s Early Learning Division, said Multnomah County has lost 20% of its child care providers from children during the pandemic. There are 300 fewer suppliers than before.
“It’s important to remember what a devastating impact the pandemic has had on child care providers,” Chilton-Timmons said. “The pandemic has shown shockingly how unstable our childcare system is.”
Even before the pandemic, less than half of children in Multnomah County had access to a regulated child care program.
State Head Start programs are federally funded to make child care and early education accessible to families who cannot afford it. But most of these programs cannot accept more children into their facilities until they have the staff in place. Pre-K programs struggle to recruit caregivers and teachers into a profession that is often overlooked or devalued.
Lindsay Wills, program director at Neighborhood House’s northwest location in the Pearl District, said there can be barriers to entry into the career field. School leaders in Head Start preschool programs must have a bachelor’s degree.
“I think there have to be different paths,” Wills said. “I don’t believe college is the right path for every teacher. I think we can develop skills with apprenticeship programs, which we do internally in our programs.”
Wills said that in his program, the best teachers worked their way up from classroom assistant to assistant to head teacher, developing their skills on the job. “There are many ways to become a truly qualified teacher,” she added.
“It’s a difficult cycle of not having enough qualified teaching staff, which means we’re not able to fully enroll our classrooms, resulting in children and families not receiving care. they need,” said Curtis, in southwest Portland. “We have the space, we just need staff.”
Although Head Start programs are federally funded, many are not, which means only high-income families can afford tuition in daycare and preschool programs. Multnomah County voters attempted to address this issue recently, with the passage of the Preschool for All measure in 2020. The measure mandates the highest incomes to establish a free preschool for residents of the county.
The program has just started and is is now accepting applications for the next term, but space is limited to 500 places. It is unlikely to serve all families until 2030.
Bonamici, the lawmaker, said despite Oregon’s strong investments in early childhood programs, more may be needed to help families and working children.
“We need more programs like this that are free or very low cost for low-income families,” Bonamici said. “We don’t have enough programs like this. And in many places in the region, providers aren’t earning a living wage.”
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