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Ashe County is asking legislators for $5.5 million to build a child care model that works for rural communities

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  • Ashe County's REALM Center would provide infant to preschool care to 42 additional families and learning experiences to pre-service teachers. Education and business leaders are asking for support in this year's budget.
  • "Child care centers are struggling, even with the money they've been getting," said Kim Barnes, executive director of the Partnership of Ashe. "I have a great fear that we will have many more centers that close come Jan. 1 when that money goes away."
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Behind the Story

This is the second piece from “School’s not out,” a series of stories from the road this summer about child care providers and the communities that rely on them in every season. In the absence of national and state investments, local leaders are stepping up to work toward solutions to the child care crisis. Meanwhile, federal relief funds are running out at the end of this year, leaving many programs with tough decisions and families with even fewer affordable child care options. Subscribe to Early Bird to follow along as EdNC documents this particularly fragile moment in early care and education. Go here for past stories in the series.

Ashe County child care, business, and education leaders have created a model to expand child care access in their community — and in rural places facing similar challenges across the state.

Those challenges — low access and affordability, low teacher pay, and a dwindling child care teacher pipeline — predate the pandemic but have reached a breaking point, said Kim Barnes, executive director of the Partnership of Ashe, the local Smart Start affiliate.

As pandemic relief funds end this year, many program directors, who are already struggling to find staff, will have to raise tuition and make cuts to quality. They also might have to shut their doors altogether, Barnes said.

“Child care centers are struggling, even with the money they’ve been getting,” Barnes said. “I have a great fear that we will have many more centers that close come Jan. 1 when that money goes away.”

A local child care task force, which has been meeting for the last 18 months, is asking for $5.5 million this legislative session to establish the Ashe County REALM Center, which would provide child care for an additional 42 families in an existing pre-K site run by the local school district.

The center would serve children six weeks to 4 years old and operate on a sliding tuition scale based on families’ income. It would also offer training for future early childhood educators in high-quality environments.

“We are addressing that true pipeline issue,” said Eisa Cox, superintendent of Ashe County Schools.

The funding would cover the costs of materials and staffing to get the center up and running for the first five years. The proposal has not shown up in legislation or budget proposals this session, but legislators are still negotiating the final budget.

Meanwhile, Cox said she’s looking for other funding sources as well.

“I’m really looking for a multi-tiered system of support where we have our General Assembly support, we have community donations, we have business support, and then a tiered model of funding from those who are have their children in that site,” she said. “Really I think everybody needs to have a stake in it.”

The center would pay teachers with similar education levels “at least” what K-12 teachers make, Cox said — a big boost from current child care wages. Each classroom would be led by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and an assistant teacher with an associate degree. The pre-service teachers would also be paid during their internships.

‘You can make way more money at Walmart’

Without sufficient staffing or resources, Ashe County child care programs can’t meet the community’s demand, Barnes said. There are 430 children on child care wait lists across the county, she said.

At Ashe Developmental Day School, Director Rebecca Rash said going into the fall, the school will need a lead teacher, two assistant teachers, a cook, and a floater. Attracting people, especially those with appropriate education and experience, is a struggle.

“We have moved toward more competitive wages, and we’ve tried to increase our benefits as best we can, but we’re still not able to provide health insurance, which is a biggie,” she said.

Adalee Lyall is one of the infants in a reopened classroom at Generations Child Development Center. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The center starts teachers at $10 per hour and pays credentialed teachers $11 per hour. Teachers with an associate degree start at $15, a bachelor’s degree starts at $18, and a master’s starts at $23, Rash said.

Though these wages are improvements from pre-pandemic levels, she knows the job is tough and requires continual education, training, and a passion for children.

“You’re trying to talk people into coming into the field when you can make way more money at Walmart or Lowe’s,” Rash said.

And Rash has used the stabilization grants, which are running out this year, to make those wage improvements. She’s looking for other funding sources to make up the gap that will be left. Tuition increases, which the program has made only twice in the last 20 years, are a last resort, she said.

“We’ll work with anybody,” she said. “I joke that if a UFO landed and an alien offered me a grant, I would go and take it.”

Earlier this summer, Gov. Roy Cooper visited Rash’s center in his statewide tour of public schools and early childhood programs to advocate for education funding in this year’s budget.

“People were talking about the governor having visited and they’re like, ‘I don’t like his politics, or I don’t like this or that,'” Rash said. “And I’m like, the man wants to give me money; I like him.”

‘We step up to bat’

The idea for the REALM Center came from surveying families’ care and work needs. In a May 2022 survey conducted by the Partnership of Ashe, more than half of the 125 respondents said they had lost work due to a lack of child care, and 80% said a lack of child care had hurt their livelihood. More than 60% said they would seek work if quality child care options were available.

“With businesses, everyone’s understaffed,” said Kitty Honeycutt, president of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and member of the local child care task force, adding that birth rates are at an all-time low.

Some local businesses have started providing child care stipends, but more support is needed.

“We need more workers, but they’re not coming,” Honeycutt said. “So we need to get some of our existing workers back into the workforce, and those are either people that are staying home with children, or even retirees and grandparents who can’t go back to work because they’re having to be home with grandchildren.”

The stakes are high, especially for rural communities, Cox said.

“It’s a barrier to working, and it’s a barrier to even saying, ‘Yes, this community is an option for me,'” she said. “The rural communities get hurt far worse than some of our other areas, because there are fewer options here.”

Maranda Banks, a teacher at Generations Child Development Center, looks after Liam Muldowney in an outdoor classroom. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Honeycutt told the story of the community — businesses, individuals, nonprofits, and local government — rallying behind Paddy Mountain, the eastern backdrop to downtown West Jefferson.

When the mountain was set to be sold to a logging company, the community raised funds for Blue Ridge Conservancy to be able to buy the mountain.

“That’s what we do,” Honeycutt said. “We step up to bat. This has the potential to be the same thing.”

Barnes, Honeycutt, and Cox said they know Ashe County is not the only one facing these problems.

“We own that this is our problem for the community, and we also own the responsibility of making a way to solve it,” Honeycutt said. “The great thing is, it’s going to be like a solution in a box. We’ll go through the hard stuff and figure it out. But then, it’s your box. It doesn’t have to be created from the ground up if we can just get it to work.”

For more on Ashe County’s child care landscape, including the apprenticeship model programs are adopting and a unique intergenerational program, sign up for Early Bird:

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.