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With odd hours and limited spots, who really has access to Iowa's universal preschool program?

'There is no way, as a single working mother, that I would be able to take off work to either pick up my child around noon or 11 a.m. or drop him off'

Oct 8, 2020 at 8:30 am
    Max Hawkes draws with dry erase markers with classmates as they rotate between stations while waiting for pickup from Handicare in Coralville on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Handicare provides both preschool and wraparound care. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    When she finally enrolled her youngest child in kindergarten, the money left over in Sara Tapya Salem’s bank account every month doubled.

    With a part-time job as a pharmacist and a husband employed by the University of Iowa, Tapya Salem considers her family a high-income household. Even so, the North Liberty mom said she spent at least half her pay on child care for her three children, all younger than 13, until the 2019-20 school year started.

    “It always made me wonder, what if I didn’t have this job? I would have probably made a decision to just not work,” she said. “My husband and I have frequently had this conversation — is it worth it? I can only imagine how that conversation happens when you don’t have our income.”

    Although Iowa’s free, universal preschool program for four-year olds and

    five-year-olds would have eased the family’s financial burden, the program never seemed accessible to Tapya Salem.

    The state funds preschool at a half-time rate, resulting in the vast majority of public preschools operating at odd hours. For example, Salem’s school district, in Iowa City, offers preschool from 7:55 to 10:45 a.m. or from noon to 2:55 p.m.

    With a commute to UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids and shifting hours — work for Tapya Salem sometimes starts at 7 a.m., other days at 2:30 p.m. — finding day care, much less a preschool, that could accommodate her schedule was a challenge.

    The only parents who seemed to be able to successfully navigate public preschool’s schedule were stay-at-home moms, she said.

    It’s still unclear how the coronavirus pandemic — which began dramatically affecting the lives of Iowans, and especially working parents, in March — will affect access to Iowa preschool programs.

    Before COVID-19, some Iowa districts had begun setting up their state-funded preschool classrooms inside existing child care centers — allowing students to attend public preschool without entangling their parents in all its logistical challenges.

    All but seven of Iowa’s 330 school districts participated in the state-funded voluntary preschool program in the 2018-19 school year, as did 286 community partners. More than 25,200 students were enrolled, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

    If such a partnership had existed at Tapya Salem’s daughter’s day care center, she would have embraced it. Instead, her children attended preschool at a child care center, where classes do not have to follow academic standards set by the state.

    “I always wonder, did I do a disservice to them?” she said. “On the other side, my kids have done just fine, and it doesn’t seem to have affected their progress at school any. But it’s always a question in the back of my mind.”

    Some classrooms in child care centers

    Just after 5 p.m. on a snowy February afternoon, Jennifer Hoeger was gathering her son James’ coat and backpack in his classroom’s entryway. She and other working parents were starting to arrive at Handicare, a child care center and preschool in Coralville.

    Nearby, James couldn’t sit still. One of two dozen children arranged cross-legged on a floor rug, the five-year-old popped up onto his knees and gently tugged on the pages of a storybook a staff member was reading aloud — eager for her to turn the page.

    While Hoeger was at work, James had spent the morning in one of the center’s child care rooms. In the afternoon, he moved to the publicly funded preschool classroom, one of the Iowa City Community School District’s satellite classrooms.

    He had been to class, eaten lunch and played with his friends. By day’s end, he was back in the child care room, where a staff member was reading a story to him and the other fidgety five-year-olds.

    Hoeger had dropped off James and her four-month-old around 8 that morning.

    “It’s a lot easier being able to just come here once, drop them off, come back and pick them up,” she said. “I remember, in my first job, having co-workers who had to take a break in the middle of the day and come back. I don’t know how they did it.”

    Centers such as Handicare that offer “wraparound” services for preschoolers — child care before and after classes — simplified life for Hoeger. Some in-home child care providers will provide transportation to and from preschool classes, but none have public preschool on-site.

    “There is no way, as a single working mother, that I would be able to take off work to either pick up my child around noon or 11 a.m. or drop him off,” said Julie Heidger, a Handicare parent and vice president of its board. “It’s just nice to be able to have that convenience. … It’s seamless.”

    Services such as Handicare’s, though, come with a price. While the public preschool program is free — hours children spend in the subsidized classroom are deducted from families’ bills, giving them essentially full-time care at a part-time rate — most preschool parents still pay around $785 a month at Handicare.

    Children already attending Handicare are given priority for the 40 preschool spots in the satellite classroom. About 10 spots usually are left for other students, Handicare Director Laura Lage said.

    “The barriers (for other satellite sites) come with possible funding from the school,” she said. “The state’s voluntary preschool program is 12 years old, and we’ve been involved from the beginning. The school district has just continued to renew our contract ever since.”

    Lage said offering the preschool classes requires adequate space, an obstacle for some child care centers.

    Advocates seek increase of families

    Doubling funds for the state’s universal voluntary preschool program was a legislative priority for the Iowa Association of School Boards in early 2020.

    Emily Piper, the association’s statehouse lobbyist, said the group would like school districts to be allowed to use those funds to offer either full-time preschool or transportation to and from part-time programming.

    “That would have a big impact for low-income students being able to access this program,” Piper said. “ When we look at numbers of children who have taken advantage of the state’s voluntary preschool programs, we’re still missing a lot of lower-income children who would really benefit from early childhood education.”

    Some districts, including Des Moines, have put together multiple streams of public funding to provide full-day preschool for free. That helps low-income families who logistically need full-time care for their preschoolers.

    For example, a family of four in Des Moines — earning less than about $26,200 annually — could qualify for both a half-day in the state’s universal preschool program and another half-day in the federally funded Head Start program.

    It’s a complicated process that Susie Guest, administrator for Des Moines’ early childhood programs, has mastered over the past five years.

    “But you have to make sure the funding allows it,” Guest said, noting that most preschool funding streams have varying eligibility levels. “ … If you don’t meet income eligibility for that, there is a tuition component.”

    Those guidelines narrow the number of families who get access. About 350 students in Des Moines attended full-time preschool free last school year, Guest said, a small fraction of the 3,000 or so kindergartners expected to enroll in the district this year. Only about half of those students will arrive having had any form of preschool.

    “Kindergarten teachers have quite the continuum of development,” Guest said. “You have, at one end of the continuum, students who have learned the rules and routines of being in school. Then we have kids that come in who have not been exposed to that at all.”

    Early childhood education research has shown students who attend public preschool are better prepared for kindergarten than those who do not. And while full funding for preschool could double Des Moines’ enrollment and present capacity problems, Guest said she would welcome those issues.

    “I’m supportive of any additional funding,” she said. “It’s what our kids deserve and need.”

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