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Illinois just made big early childhood investments. But services like daycare and preschool are nearly impossible for many families to access.

Kids at Taylor's Tots in Rockford
Peter Medlin
Kids at Taylor's Tots in Rockford

PART 1: Early childhood deserts

There are deserts near the Mississippi River in northwest Illinois’ Carroll County. Early childhood deserts. Where any early childcare services —whether daycare or preschool — are few and often very far between.

“Transportation can be an issue, especially in the rural areas,” said Lou Ann Hayes. “To send a preschooler on a bus for an hour and a half each way for a half-day program is a lot to ask.”

She’s one of 39 regional council managers at Birth to Five Illinois. Hayes oversees Carroll, Jo Daviess and Stephenson counties.

Birth to Five Illinois was created this past fall based on a recommendation from a state commission on early childhood’s 2021 report. Each region has two advisory councils: an action council that includes local early child care providers and a family council with parents who are maneuvering the tangled web that is the early childhood system.

That’s not just one reporter’s opinion. One of the commission’s other recommendations was to streamline state and federal funding systems and agencies because it’s so complicated for providers and, obviously, for new parents.

And a lot of different services fall under the umbrella of early childhood. There is preschool, daycare, child care homes, home visits and early intervention for children with extra needs. There are public and private programs.

Dawn V. Thomas summarizes it best. She works with IECAM, a state database of early childcare programs.

“I’ll say it’s a hot mess,” she said.

But before you can try to maneuver through those programs, there has to be someplace for the child to go. So just how much of an early childhood “desert” is Carroll County?

“We have Little Sprouts, which is a great little daycare and preschool in Lanark. There's one in Chadwick, there's one in Savannah. Then there's a Head Start [program]. That's it,” she said. “That's it for the entire county.”

There’s onelicensed childcare center in all of Carroll County. For context, in DeKalb County there are 17.

That means even if you can find a preschool with enough space and teachers for your child, that’s high quality, and fits with your work schedule -- you might have to drive an hour there and an hour home.

But, for so many parents, it feels almost impossible to find a spot for your child in a daycare or preschool. Lauren Dick is a mom of two young kids in rural Lena, Illinois. She’s also a part of Birth to Five’s family council in her region.

“There's a waitlist for years for childcare facilities," said Dick. "It's like you almost have to put yourself on a list before you're even pregnant."

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker knows this. He’s vowed to “cover all of those early childhood deserts.”

Pritzker recently announced major investments in early childhood with his new “Smart Start Illinois” plan.

It includes $250 million for early childhood programs this year: $100 million for facilities and a $40 million funding increase for early intervention services. He also talked about how difficult it is for families to find an open spot in preschools.

“In the next school year alone," said the governor during a recent trip to Rockford, "we will add an additional 5,000 preschool spots across Illinois.”

Lou Ann Hayes in northwest Illinois says that is a big deal. They could use more of everything right now.

“We have 5,500 children in this three-county area who are 5 years old and younger,” said Hayes. “We have enough spaces for these children to be involved in something for 1,000 or 1,500 of them. Which means there are 4,000 kiddos right now hanging out somewhere. We're not quite sure where they are.”

Smart Start also continues to invest in ECACE, a scholarship program for early childhood workers to get a bachelor’s degree. Even if you have those spots and buildings ready, if there are no teachers, there are no programs.

Hayes says they have classrooms right now ready with children on the list but with nobody to teach in them.

Dr. Melissa Clucas Walker is an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at Northern Illinois University. Students who want to work in early childhood outside of school settings go through her program -- including folks getting the ECACE scholarship.

“NIU has a goal of reaching 160 students over this period," she said. "Since 2021, we've reached about 100."

Myriah Saunders is a childcare worker at Taylor’s Tots in Rockford. She’s using the ECACE scholarship to get a degree in developmental therapy from Rockford University.

“I didn't think I was gonna ever go back," said Saunders, "because I don't have the money to do it at all.”

Clucas Walker says the scholarships are helpful, but the state has to help make the job more enticing if they want the best and brightest signing up to work in early childcare. In many cases, even getting a degree won’t give early childhood workers much of a pay raise. 50% of early childhood workers qualify for food stamps.

She says people still don’t quite grasp how crucial early childhood education is for kids. 90% of brain developmenthappens by age 5.

“We know this from neuroscience and from brain development," said Walker, "that the better start we can give children, the better the outcomes for children."

For many in early childhood, it’s refreshing to see the state begin to take it seriously.

PART 2: It’s almost impossible, even if you know where to look

Taylor's Tots
Taylor's Tots

Taylor’s Tots is a home childcare program. Taylor Macklin has been running for 10 years in Rockford.

She and her two staff care for a dozen kids all under 4 years old. The program blends a cozy, at-home atmosphere with a more academic, classroom setting that prepares kids for preschool and kindergarten. The walls are adorned with the kids' artwork.

For many parents, it feels next to impossible to find a program like Taylor’s Tots. There are childcare deserts that have no services. And then there are places like Rockford where there might be child care programs, but getting into one is a whole other question. Not to mention finding one that fits with your work schedule and transportation needs.

Macklin’s program, unsurprisingly, is in high demand. She closed her waitlist and doesn’t expect any open spots until the fall of 2024. Many parents are desperate to get onto those waitlists.

“The waitlists for infant care are so extreme that I have had families contact me before they tell their spouse that they're pregnant,” she said. “I have a family right now who, the second the mom found out she was pregnant, she told me to get on my waitlist and then sent me a picture of the pizza announcement she gave to her husband a few days later.”

It’s no wonder. If you don’t have childcare, how are you supposed to go back to work and provide for your family — and continue paying for that childcare.

It can be a vicious cycle. Livia Bane is Birth to Five Illinois’ regional council manager for Winnebago and Boone counties. She says a Rockford parent she works with had child care and was working, but it wasn’t reliable care.

“When it falls through or a provider just has some change in their life," said Bane, "this parent got demoted due to childcare issues."

Sarah Kuhlemeier is the Early Childhood Coordinatorat the Regional Office of Education covering Carroll, Jo Daviess, & Stephenson counties.

She says situations like that are why the early childhood conversation has to be about much more than just adding more slots. Say you’re a working family with a 3-year-old child. You’re finally able to secure a spot at a daycare, but it’s only two and half hours, not the full day. Sometimes families drive their kids to multiple daycares and preschools a day so they have somewhere they can go while their parents work. If you work nights, weekends, or in the summer -- you might as well forget about it.

“We have maybe 1,000 preschool slots, and we need probably 1,000-1500 more to meet every child," she said. "But when it only meets the need for two and a half hours a day -- does it truly meet the need? No, it really doesn't. To me, it perpetuates poverty, and, like, a 1975 way of thinking that there's always going to be a stay-at-home parent.”

Kuhlemeier sees parents struggling to meet their early childhood needs all the time. It’s especially evident on preschool screening days when she stands at the door greeting families at Empire Elementary School in Freeport.

Families walk from across town in the middle of winter or pouring rain, pushing strollers. She helps them fill out the paperwork and gets them bags of food to stuff into backpacks and strollers to take home.

“They'll be like, ‘I just want them with somebody else other than me because I think I'm a bad mom. I think I'm doing a terrible job,’” Kuhlemeier said. “I wanted to hug that mom when she came to preschool screening, because she felt like she was doing terrible things. And she was so embarrassed. I'm thinking about what it must have taken for her to walk to school that day.”

But many families aren’t able to make that trip to the screening. Kuhlemeier says instead of expecting those parents to come to screenings, they need to go out to them.

She’s also a foster mom. Even her foster child couldn’t go to preschool because they couldn’t figure out how to get him into a full day program. Even with all of his risk factors and being considered homeless by the state.

“I know how to maneuver and check all those boxes," said Kuhlemeier, "and he still couldn't go.”

Teresa Fillers is a mom of two from the Rockford area. She’s director of early childhood at Rockford public schools. That’s to say, she’s also intimately familiar with the system -- and says it was still nearly impossible to make it work for her.

Like so many families, she was driving an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to get her kids from one provider to the next. Then, she finally heard about a full-day program at a local church.

“They said, ‘Well, yes, we're accepting new kids, but not until this specific day in January. And if you're interested, we have families who line up outside in the morning on that day to try and get a spot for the year,’” she said. “We went and got in line very early in the morning to get a seat.”

They lined up with 15 other families like it was a midnight release for a new Xbox.

The challenges in early childhood aren’t just limited to preschool and daycare, there are access issues when it comes to home visiting for services like speech or occupational therapy as well.

Robin Steans is the president of Advance Illinois. She says the governor’s new $250 million Smart Start early childhood plan will make a big difference for families. But it doesn’t totally untangle the complicated web of providers and agencies that make it so hard for parents.

“I also don't think it goes far enough in that, ultimately, nobody stands up at the beginning of any year, and says, ‘Here's what we need for early childhood. Here's the dollars that we need. Here is our price, strategic priorities, and you can hold this agency or entity responsible for that next year,’” she said. “Nobody does that. Because, again, it lives across multiple agencies. You get that in higher education. You get that in K-12. You just don't have that coherence in early childhood.”

And, advocates say, it’s needed because the system now doesn’t even work properly for the people within it -- let alone the families and children who need the support the most.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.