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'It can implode and our families are suffering': What are northern Illinois' early childhood needs?

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

Affordable childcare and early childhood education is nearly impossible to access for many Illinois families. Birth to Five Illinois, a state initiative, just released 39 regional needs assessments that spell out how dire the situation is in every area of the state, along with recommendations on ways to improve it.

First of all, when we’re talking about “early childhood” programs, what are we even talking about? Gretchen Sprinkle is the family and community engagement specialist with Birth to Five Illinois inDeKalb County. She explains that it’s an umbrella that covers a lot.

“It's your childcare centers, it's family, friends, and neighbor care where a family member or friends might watch your child in their home, or a home-based childcare provider," she said. "It's preschool, it's early intervention, it's any service geared towards helping young children develop."

But, for a long time, in nearly every part of the state, there’s been a chasm between what early childhood services are available and what families need. For example, in DeKalb County, there are about 7,600 kids under 6 years old. Not all of those kids need childcare outside of the home. They might have a parent or grandparent who can look after them. But Sprinkle says there’s still a gulf between what’s needed and what the county offers.

“We're talking about 80 to 90% of kids," she said, "that even if they wanted to spot, even if their families had a way to pay for it, the service is not there for them."

But why are there such massive gaps? Livia Bane is the regional council manager for Boone & Winnebago counties with Birth to Five. She says it starts with a lack of qualified adults who want to work in early childhood jobs. And she says it’s no wonder, because even though they’re teaching, the pay and benefits are typically much less than a K-12 teacher would earn.

“It's lower for an assistant compared to a teacher compared to a center director," said Bane. "And even with that said, pretty much everybody's under $30,000 a year."

When childcare centers aren’t properly staffed it causes burnout, high turnover and service unreliability. Bane says that makes things really tough on families.

“We're battling for these very limited slots," she said, "and children are being placed in perhaps not safe environments because a parent has to go to work. "Parents are losing their jobs because they don't have steady childcare.”

Workforce development was the number one need listed in Boone & Winnebago counties.

If you home in more specifically, gaps can look even more dire. Take infant and toddler care for example. In Boone & Winnebago counties, there are over 12,000 children 2 years old or younger — but less than 2,000 spots available.

Or take Preschool For All. It’s a publicly-funded preschool program. But community members in Boone County say Preschool For All is simply not for all. Livia Bane explains.

“[We have] one Preschool For All program," she said, "with a capacity of 40, to serve their 3000 kids."

Sprinkle in DeKalb says there’s also something crucial to note when we’re talking about “slots” and these “slot gaps.”

“We think about really excellent programs like Preschool For All. But that's a two-and-a-half to three-hour program,” she said. “It provides the education need, but it doesn't provide the care need.”

Because if a parent works eight hours and the program’s two and a half hours -- where do the kids go?

It’s why the reports recommend investment in full-day programs. They also point out the need for more availability outside of 9-5 for families who work other shifts and for children with disabilities.

Cicely Fleming is state director of Birth to Five. She says these needs aren’t unique to northern Illinois. They’re the same across the state, some more severe depending on where you live.

Fleming says transportation is a big hurdle for families from Chicago to Carbondale.

The report’s other major recommendation is to make high-quality childcare more affordable. One DeKalb County parent wrote “It’s literally my whole paycheck that goes to my daycare. Like, I bring nothing home.”

Time and again, Fleming says they heard from parents teetering on the edge of no longer qualifying for subsidized childcare if they get a raise of even $1 more an hour.

Bane says it’s unsustainable for so many families.

“It's finally to a point where the system, it can implode," she said, "and our families are suffering.”

The regional councils made many recommendations -- ideas like subsidizing childcare for all families based on a flat percent of income and streamlining the referral process.

The reports come right as Illinois is devoting hundreds of millions to of dollars to early childcare through the new Smart Start Illinois plan.

Fleming says they’re going to continue listening and will start working on action plans soon. She says Smart Start funding will make a big difference, but there are also creative ways local officials can make childcare more affordable and more accessible, no matter where you live and how much money you make.

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