Missoula Early Learning Center plans opening, calls for child care support

Missoulian – January 23, 2017

The new Missoula Early Learning Center isn’t even licensed yet, and it already has a waiting list for infant care.

It’s a sign of the persistent need for affordable, quality child care in Missoula, echoing the need in Montana and nationwide. The center, at 2120 Ernest Ave., is coming together. Staff members got into the building Jan. 1 and since then have painted and installed new carpets and appliances. Boxes were being unpacked and the different areas of the building organized on Monday.

Assuming licensing goes through, the center would be able to take up to 70 children.

It’s a facility that was built with child care in mind. It started out as Mother Goose and Gander and was most recently the site of Missoula YMCA’s Exploration Center, which closed last fall.

“There’s a need for child care in Missoula,” said preschool teacher Dana Lozier. “The need is so great where we were working that we were getting 10 to 15 calls a day, especially for infant care.”

Lozier and a group of educators partnered last fall to start the business.

“It’s the only way you can start a business like this because it takes so much capital in starting a child care center,” Lozier said. “It’s a business setup that’s fairly new to child care.”

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Lozier will work with preschoolers alongside teacher Amanda Steffes. Tess Jarvie and Danni Wilkins will be with the 2- and 3-year-olds, and Kate Graham and Pepper Curtis will handle the infants.

They’ll overlap for part of the day, as the center will be open 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We all have a teaching degree and wanted to put that to use,” Graham said.

They partnered with Mark Roberts, who’s handling the business side of the center as operations manager.

“It takes the stress off of us and allows us to focus on teaching,” Lozier said. “It’s a balance of talents.

“It’s a lot more egalitarian and not so heavy at the top. Eventually we want employees to be able to own shares in the company.”

They’re working in the state’s STARS to Quality program, a voluntary five-star rating system that reimburses child care providers as they move up in rating.

Gov. Steve Bullock called for $2.4 million for STARS to Quality in his proposed budget for the 2019 biennium.

Their lesson plans are built on the Montana Early Learning Standards, a set of standards revised in 2014 to guide early childhood educators in developing children’s skills and knowledge as they enter K-12 schools.

The center will also work with families who have Best Beginnings scholarships. Families whose income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($30,240 for a family of three) qualify for a scholarship. In 2014, Best Beginnings scholarships served 4,600 kids a month, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center — though that represents only 14 percent of eligible children in need.

Lozier said they also hope to offer services for Head Start kids on Fridays, as Head Start runs Monday through Thursday.

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Child care is a tough business.

State standards set ratios for staff and different age groups. For example, it’s four infants to one staff member. That means many centers don’t offer infant care, as it increases staff needs, which in turn increases costs and forces centers to raise prices.

“With infants, that’s why we need the preschool attached to it to balance out the cost,” Graham said.

The average cost of child care for a 4-year-old is $7,900 a year and the average cost of infant care is $9,000 a year, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

And child care workers are some of the lowest-paid in the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making about $20,500 a year. That’s compared to the lowest salary a first-year teacher can make in the Missoula area: $26,000.

“The disparity is tremendous,” Lozier said.

She said that with their co-director business model and no executive director, they’re able to pay their teachers more in comparison to other centers.

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The center is hosting an open house Thursday.

It comes the same week that Gov. Steve Bullock’s office is recommending his $12 million preschool proposal move from the Department of Public Health and Human Services to the Office of Public Instruction, said communications director Ronja Abel.

Montana is one of eight states with no public preschool. Bullock’s 2015 effort to fund preschool through a $37 million request for Early Edge was shot down.

In December, Senate Republicans called for the $12 million preschool proposal to shift instead to the Department of Transportation to help match federal funding for road construction.

“Republican governors, with Republican-majority legislatures, have invested in their kids’ futures because they realize that it’s a smart investment in the future of their states,” Bullock said in a news release this month. “But it would seem that Montana Republicans have decided that our state’s four-year-olds are less important than trying to make a political statement. It’s unacceptable, and Montana families expect more of them.”

Montana is in year three of a four-year $40 million federal Preschool Development Grant to create or build upon free preschool programs in high-needs communities. It’s a program that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen opposed when she was a legislator in 2015, one of 50 GOP legislators to sign a letter calling on Montana’s congressional delegation to turn down the funding.

Most of the current preschool programs in the state align with school hours, meaning they often end before the end of the work day.

“Universal pre-K is a great idea, but parents need child care all day long,” Lozier said, adding that 8 a.m.-noon “is not going to work.”

“Parents have to leave work to pick up their kids from preschool and then they still have to pay to take them to child care the rest of the day,” Graham said.

While they agree the preschool plan needs some work, the teachers said they don’t understand the resistance to funding it in Montana.

“It’s just so sad,” Lozier said. “We’re already so far behind in Montana in funding early childhood education.”

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