Childcare crunch: What happens if you’re not poor enough for federal aid?

Everybody wants quality care for their kids, but low-income families who don’t qualify for federal assistance are often stuck in the middle and forced to make sacrifices. File photo. Everybody wants quality care for their kids, but low-income families who don’t qualify for federal assistance are often stuck in the middle and forced to make sacrifices. File photo.

This is the third installment of a four-part series on childcare in Charlottesville. The first story looked at choices parents make in regards to their careers, with input from working parents and stay-at-home moms. Part two focused on the most expensive options in the area and families’ financial sacrifices for quality. 

Parents and providers agree that every kid deserves quality childcare and equal access to education. And while Charlottesville is home to centers with low kid-to-instructor ratios, experienced teachers, and national accreditation, many local families simply cannot afford upwards of $14,000 per year for daycare or preschool. The options for low-income families are limited, and parents, especially those who struggle financially but don’t qualify for federal assistance, are forced to make sacrifices.

The Piedmont Family YMCA Childcare Center is licensed for 50 kids, and costs parents less than $10,000 per year for preschool-aged children—one of the cheaper options in Charlottesville. Director Ikeia Prince said about 40 percent of the kids currently enrolled are on scholarship, either through United Way or the Department of Social Services. The wait list for one of these scholarships can be as long as two years, but for low-income parents, the financial aid can mean the difference between qualified care providers and under-the-table babysitters with little experience.

According to Prince, the staff at the YMCA come from a variety of educational backgrounds. About half of the teachers hold either bachelor’s or master’s degrees in child-related fields, and those without degrees have at least 10 years of experience under their belts.

“Everybody here is qualified, whether through their education or their experience,” Prince said.

Gail Esterman, child care quality program manager at Children, Youth & Family Services, works closely with several local centers and organizes workshops and classes for providers. She said the YMCA’s facility is not an ideal setting, but it stands out as working particularly hard to raise its Virginia STAR Quality rating, a local ranking system for childcare centers.

“We’re very invested in their success because of who they’re serving and because of their efforts to really provide families with quality childcare in a situation that’s been a struggle,” Esterman said.

The current facility’s location off Route 29 is inconvenient for most of its low-income clients, and both indoor and outdoor play areas are limited. But come December, the Jefferson School City Center will be the program’s new home. The move will require a slight increase in tuition, but the center will be licensed for 36 more children, including infants.

Prince said she’s especially excited for the new partnerships with Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, which will provide evening care and intergenerational programming. Esterman said the YMCA has struggled to maintain a successful program without cutting corners, but has high hopes that the move will open new doors for the non-profit.

“It takes a lot of dedication, and it’s expensive. We want quality, so we want those teachers who can really do that, and then it’s hard to pay them what they’re worth and not lose them to the school systems. It’s really, really hard to do this well,” said Esterman.

In order to keep tuition manageable for families who don’t make six figures, some preschools and daycares are forced to make staffing sacrifices. Hiring high school graduates rather than teachers with master’s degrees is less expensive, but can also result in high turnover rates.

ABC Preschool-Daycare, which has locations in Palmyra and Downtown Charlottesville, requires a high school diploma or GED, with at least six months experience working with young children. Owner Peggy Johnson said some of her staff have been there more than 10 years, but at least one parent is concerned about the Downtown center’s ability to retain teachers.

After her second son was born, working mother Christina Feggans sent both children to ABC, her only affordable option for an infant and a toddler. Tuition for both children would have cost $1,460 per month, but with the United Way scholarship she paid $320 out of pocket, saving her about $15,000 per year. Feggans said the experience was wonderful in the beginning; a lot of ABC’s policies lined up with her personal parenting beliefs, like saying grace before meals, teaching the meaning behind holidays, and utilizing time outs when kids misbehave. But when her older son’s teachers began leaving without warning, she started having doubts.

“With him being special needs, he needs consistency,” Feggans said. “He doesn’t do well with random change.”

Feggans said her older son had three different people leading his classroom over the course of two months, with no warning or transition period. His behavior began to change, and she said despite an effort to work with the staff to help him adjust, she ultimately pulled both of her kids from the center.

“Teachers there are not necessarily qualified to teach any of those kids. They don’t have any type of formal education in preschool or early childhood,” she said. “They were basically babysitters, not teachers.”

Feggans said she and other families with kids on financial aid felt like they got the short end of the stick.

“The other parents I’ve heard complaints from are some that I know are receiving scholarships. It doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “I guess it’s all about where the money is coming from.”

Johnson said ABC emphasizes diversity in the classroom, and accepting students on United Way and DSS scholarships helps them get there.

“Everybody comes from a different background, and it helps the kids accept and respect others,” she said.

Five of the children currently enrolled are on scholarship, and Johnson said relationships with some parents are not always smooth.

Johnson said with the scholarship programs, “parents do not follow the policies set forth by the company, and a lot of times we have to ask them to withdraw.” The center has no tolerance for kids being dropped off after 8;30am, and Johnson said they’ve had issues with profanity. “There are certain things we do not allow. We’re a preschool.”

When a child has behavioral issues or special needs, Johnson said she and her teachers do their best, but it doesn’t always work out. The contract parents sign states that after a two-week period, ABC has the right to remove a child from the program.

“We do give parents the chance and they work with us,” she said. “About 80 percent of the time it works out.”

The ABC on East Market Street may soon be moving to a larger, new facility, despite the fact that it’s at about 40 percent capacity.  Johnson said the center is licensed for 120 children, but roughly 50 are currently enrolled—something of an anomaly in a city where many centers operate year-long wait lists.

“We used to run a wait list, but with the economy the way it has been, I think we have all suffered,” Johnson said.

For families below the poverty line who cannot afford even the least expensive options, the federal government provides a safety net. Head Start has been serving low-income kids since the 1960s, and every classroom in the Charlottesville area is at full capacity.

The federal government provides 80 percent of the program’s funding, with the rest provided by local governments. Children below the federal poverty line are eligible for Head Start, and priority goes to those with special needs. The local branch can accommodate 213 kids. Roughly 27 percent of Charlottesville’s 43,500 residents are below poverty level.

Local director Terry David said Head Start takes its school readiness goals seriously. Teachers are required to have at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education, and David said of the 11 local teachers, 10 have either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

Head Start teams also include family advocates, who work with kids and parents on transitions and behavior, and the program even provides financial assistance for working parents going for a GED.

“It’s not just about getting the kid ready for school, but the entire family,” David said.

Head Start students take assessments in the fall and spring of their pre-k year to determine their readiness for kindergarten, and David said about 82 percent of the program’s 4-year-olds pass the test with flying colors.

But funding for Head Start is limited, so only a small percentage of children can qualify. The wait list is long, David said, and there will inevitably be kids who fall through the cracks.

“I’m always concerned about children who don’t have that access,” David said.