Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald (May 2017)
Choosing Childcare Options in Western North Carolina
It’s not babysitting—it’s early childhood education. For parents in Western North Carolina, it usually boils down to a calculation of cost versus quality.
Ed. Note: In the “Resources” section our our website there is a comprehensive list of all the childcare facilities – standalone centers, those located in churches, private homes – in Western North Carolina, by county/city, and with their license status.
The first day Tara Ducker dropped her two-and-half-year-old daughter, Emory, off at her child care center was one she will never forget.
“The first day was rough for me, but not bad for Emory,” says Ducker. “She was excited to play with new toys and her new teacher was very sweet about easing her into the class. I was very nervous about leaving her with people that I didn’t know. Up until that point, she had been with only her parents, immediate family, or her babysitter, who we knew very well.”
Parents across Western North Carolina are sure to share Ducker’s feelings. Selecting a child care provider is perhaps one of the most important decisions a parent will make for their child. Gone are the days when a child care center may have been just a babysitter. Today’s centers are closely regulated and licensed, and they all have—should have—trained and educated staff.
Many local centers accept children as young as six weeks old in their programs to assist the working parent who must return to work. And while the center fulfills the immediate need for care, it provides the child with much more. As the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program coordinator with Buncombe Partnership for Children, Stacey Bailey is a firm believer in the benefits of enrolling your child in an early childhood education program. She sees, in her words, “unbelievable benefits for the child. A kindergarten teacher can tell the kids who have been in a quality child care center. They tend to do better initially.”
But where does a parent begin the search for a quality child care provider? What resources are available to assist families who cannot afford to pay full-price rates? Let’s take a closer look.
Look at the Stars
In the state of North Carolina, the Division of Child Development and Early Education is the licensing agent for child care centers, which are defined as “three or more unrelated children under 13 years of age, receiving care from a non-relative on a regular basis, of at least once a week for more than four hours per day, but less than 24 hours.”
Currently, facilities are evaluated on two components—staff education and program standards. In addition, programs can earn a “quality point” for meeting enhanced standards for staff education and program standards. Licenses are star rated, ranging from one star to the highest of five stars. The greater the number of stars, the higher quality of care. When the Duckers began their search, it was important that the program have a five-star rating. A center’s star rating is available for the public to view and a good tool for assessing where to place your child. Each center undergoes an annual unannounced inspection where they are graded on items that go into those ratings, such as teacher/child ratios; health and safety hazards (such as cabinets locked up); is the playground safe; do they have regular fire drills; have staff had required training; emergency preparedness; annual fire inspection; and are nutrition guidelines being met.
Take a Cue from the Kids
While the star system is an important tool to use when choosing a center, an on-site visit is key. What should a parent look for? Early childhood advocate Leslie Blaylock has been both an owner of a local child care center and a director of Early Head Start in Asheville. Currently a freelance consultant for early childhood education organizations, she encourages parents to make an appointment and talk to the director—and be prepared to ask questions. For example, ask about the education level of the teachers, although be aware that some teachers who don’t have the highest degree may still have a wonderful way with the children.
Other key things to note include: Are the children happy? What does the daily schedule look like—is there a balance of active and quiet play? Is there a good use of outdoor time? What does their outdoor learning environment look like? What kind of curriculum do they use? How do the children interact? What is the tone of voice of the teacher?
Blaylock also recommends an unannounced drop-in visit. The director may not be able to talk with you, but you can get a feel for what the place looks like. How does the atmosphere feel—is it welcoming? Do people greet you when you come in? Is it clean? Does it welcome you in general?
In the Home
Another option in child care is a family child care home, which is a smaller program offered in the provider’s residence where three to five preschool children are in care.
Alissa Rhodes is a mother of two girls. She recalls that the first time she left them at a child care center she had a lump in her throat. “It was a blessing and a curse,” says Rhodes. “I knew from my background in early education the importance of play and socialization; however, I felt like they should be with their mother, and I missed them terribly. They both had wonderful teachers from infants to preschool and met friends quickly.”
Rhodes has a bachelor of arts degree in child and family studies from Western Carolina University and 22 years of experience as an early education teacher, director, and early education technical assistance trainer and specialist for Buncombe County. She decided to open a family child care home for several reasons, including the impact on her family.
“I took the opportunity to open A Sense of Wonder Family Child Care to be there for my [own] children throughout the day,” says Rhodes. “I also wanted a small learning environment for other children to come and play and socialize with peers. I want children enrolled in A Sense of Wonder and their families to feel at home and comfortable.”
A family child care home is licensed by the state of North Carolina and also receives a star rating. One of the key benefits of the family child care home is that children of different ages are in the classroom together.
“My oldest child took on a leadership role and loves to help her younger friends with rest time and passing them out books to read while they settle down to sleep,” says Rhodes. “It gives children a sense of family, connection, and unity. “
Opening a family child care home is not an easy task. The owner must obtain all the necessary certifications like background checks, CPR, and First Aid training, and take the required medical and TB test. Zoning laws also must be checked on—is your neighborhood zoned for a center? Rhodes did make changes to her home in order to accommodate the center legally.
“I wanted a space where I could close the doors at the end of the night and separate my business from home,” she says. “I converted the guest room into a play space with all the [education] centers (dramatic play, blocks, science, math, fine motor, art, books). The Division of Child Development Early Education consultants are very respectful of your home environment. There are requirements that you have things posted for parents and visitors to see and ensure you are meeting the health and safety needs of young children. I created an entryway for parents to sign in and display my license, lesson plan, schedule, division laws, menu, fire drill report, and emergency numbers. I also ordered a diaper changing station that looks like a piece of furniture to fit in the design of my home. I also had to put safety locks in my cabinets with hazardous materials, and another latch on my garage door. I still feel that my home looks and feels like a home, although there are some visual changes [indicating that] I care for young children in my home.”
Shannon McDonald sends her two-and-a-half-year-old child to Rhodes’ A Sense of Wonder Family Child Care. She is expecting her second child in just a few weeks.
“We looked for someone we could trust, someone who would allow learning though play—and availability was also a factor,” says McDonald. “We enrolled him to help him with his socialization skills and give me some time when the baby comes. The school we initially liked had a wait list, but Alissa came highly recommended by the director. I think this worked out best for my son. Declan has transitioned so well going to Alissa’s, and loves it there.”
Many parents may find themselves in the position to be unable to afford child care. Buncombe Partnership for Children’s Bailey reports that the average private pay cost of full-day care for children three to four years of age is $750 per month. For children two years of age, the average cost is $850 per month. And for children who are infants to two years of age, the average cost is $1,000 or more per month. Blaylock agrees, saying, “Cost of infant care can go over a $1,000 a month in Buncombe County,” adding that there is a big difference in Buncombe between what people actually make and what they can afford to pay for high quality care.
(Worth noting: For comparison’s sake, according to a 2015 study by the Child Care Services Association, “State of Child Care in the Triangle,” shared by Melinda Schlesinger, the evaluation manager for Wake County SmartStart, the median monthly cost for an infant in the most typical type of care in Wake County was $1,140.)
For a single parent or those in a service-industry job, rates may be impossible to pay. Parents who pay 100 percent of the center’s fees are classified as private-pay. For those who are unable to pay, there are several programs in place to assist. These include Early Head Start and Head Start, both providing free, high-quality child care—characteristics of high-quality education typically being safe and secure physical environments, well-trained and educated staff, low teacher/student ratio, strong curriculums, and healthy nutrition programs. Families can also avail themselves of the Child Care Subsidy Program, not to mention federal tax credits.
Early Head Start
Early Head Start is an income qualifying program funded by the federal government for ages 0-3 and pregnant women. In addition to free child care, it includes a variety of services designed to meet the medical, dental, nutritional, and mental health needs of participating children. To qualify, the family income must be at or below 100 percent of Federal Poverty Level. As of 2016, Federal Poverty Guidelines for a family of two is $15,930 and for a family of four is $24,250. Priority placement as space permits is given to teen parents, homeless children, and migrant children.
Head Start’s program has guidelines differing from Early Head Start in the age range only—children 3-5 years of age, prior to kindergarten. Funding for Head Start and Early Head Start never passes through the state level. Both programs offer the highest level of care for a child that include a more highly educated teacher with a two or four-year degree, and a lower child-to-staff ratio. Comprehensive health services are also offered that include monitoring, immunization, and health screenings.
The goal of both programs is not only to provide the highest quality care, but also, hopefully, to move a family out of poverty.
“Every child is assigned a family advocate—a social worker that checks in with the family and offers support for the whole family—to hook them up to resources, etc.,” says Blaylock. “The advocate has contact with each family at least once a month and focuses on health, jobs, nutrition, finances, mental health, and parenting skills.”
Over 84 Buncombe County children are served annually by the Early Head Start program and 500 by the Head Start program.
Child Care Subsidy Program
The Child Care Subsidy Program, also known as the Voucher Program, is both state- and federally-funded. It serves over 2,500 Buncombe County children annually. Families must be working and/or enrolled in school for a minimum of 30 hours a week. For children 0-5 years old, the family income must be at or below 200 percent of Federal Poverty Level, which for a family of two is $31,860, and for a family of four is $48,500. Parents pay only 10 percent of their gross monthly income for all vouchers.
“The great thing about the subsidy program is that it allows low income families to put their child in the highest possible care,” says Blaylock.
Federal Tax Credit?
If you pay someone to care for your child, depending on how much taxable income you have, you may be able to claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit on your federal income tax return. There is a list of qualifications that must be met, which can be found on the Internal Revenue Service website.
Certified Public Accountant Kathryn Atkinson, Johnson Price Sprinkle P.A. Shareholder working in taxation and assurance services, breaks down the figures: “Under Internal Revenue Code Section 21 (IRC Sec. 21), a nonrefundable credit is available to taxpayers for qualifying child and dependent care expenses. Qualifying expenses must be paid for the care of the taxpayer’s child or dependent (qualifying person) to allow the taxpayer (and spouse, if married) to work. The credit is a percentage of the lesser of the actual costs incurred, or $3,000 per qualifying person. The percentage begins at 35 percent, and is reduced by 1 percent for each $2,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) over $15,000, but cannot be reduced to less than 20 percent. Therefore, the minimum credit available for one child, with expenses capped at $3,000, would be $600, regardless of the taxpayer’s AGIA nonrefundable credit is potentially limited to a lesser amount if the taxpayer’s actual tax liability is less than the credit amount.”
Many parents are also closely watching the proposed child care plan of President Trump and his daughter, Ivanka Trump.
“The Ivanka Trump plan is much broader in scope providing for a deduction of child care expenses and expenses for caring for elderly parents,” says Larry Harris, Certified Public Accountant with Burlingham & Harris P.A. “The Trump deduction is available to a very broad band of taxpayers who can make as much as $250,000 or $500,000 for single or married filing joint taxpayers. The deduction is available for families with ‘stay at home’ moms and dads. The Trump plan continues to provide a refundable credit to low income taxpayers.
“In addition, the Trump plan provides for paid maternity leave for six weeks. The Trump plan ‘trumps’ the current child tax credit in terms of benefits to a broader group in the middle class. The Ivanka Trump plan also ‘trumps’ the current credit in cost, which is projected to be $500 billion over 10 years by the Tax Foundation.”
Things to Know About the Child and Dependent Care Credit
If you paid someone to care for your child, spouse, or dependent last year, you may be able to claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit on your federal income tax return. Below are ten things the IRS wants you to know about claiming a credit for child and dependent care expenses. (Source: Internal Revenue Service www.irs.gov)
(1). The care must have been provided for one or more qualifying persons. A qualifying person is your dependent child age 12 or younger when the care was provided. Additionally, your spouse and certain other individuals who are physically or mentally incapable of self-care may also be qualifying persons. You must identify each qualifying person on your tax return.
(2). The care must have been provided so you—and your spouse, if you are married filing jointly—could work or look for work.
(3). You—and your spouse, if you file jointly—must have earned income from wages, salaries, tips, other taxable employee compensation, or net earnings from self-employment. One spouse may be considered as having earned income if they were a full-time student or were physically or mentally unable to care for themselves.
(4). The payments for care cannot be paid to your spouse, to the parent of your qualifying person, to someone you can claim as your dependent on your return, or to your child who will not be age 19 or older by the end of the year, even if he or she is not your dependent. You must identify the care provider(s) on your tax return.
(5). Your filing status must be single, married filing jointly, head of household, or qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child.
(6). The qualifying person must have lived with you for more than half of the year. There are exceptions for the birth or death of a qualifying person, or a child of divorced or separated parents. See Publication 503, Child and Dependent Care Expenses.
(7). The credit can be up to 35 percent of your qualifying expenses, depending upon your adjusted gross income.
(8). You may use up to $3,000 of expenses paid in a year for one qualifying individual, or $6,000 for two or more, to figure the credit.
(9). The qualifying expenses must be reduced by the amount of any dependent care benefits provided by your employer that you deduct or exclude from your income.
(10). If you pay someone to come to your home and care for your dependent or spouse, you may be a household employer and may have to withhold and pay social security and Medicare tax and pay federal unemployment tax. See Publication 926, Household Employer’s Tax Guide.
The Waiting Game
Eliada Child Development Center, located in Asheville is a center with a five-star rating that provides care to over 150 children ranging from 0-5 years old. Monthly costs for their infant and toddler programs are $740; $640 for the 2-year-old program; and $600 for ages 3-12. They do accept vouchers from those who qualify.
Director of Child Development Tracey McCrain shares the structure of a typical day with us, which includes, but is not limited to: free play (art, music, blocks, fine motor, science, dramatic play), group time, outside gross motor/indoor gross motor, free play/small group activities, story time, quiet time/ rest time, music and movement/gross motor.
They currently have around 100 children, mostly infants, on their waiting list. Parents are encouraged by early childhood educators to start their search for a center as soon as they find out they are pregnant, which even then may not be enough time.
“I have parents who call me every day to get a spot into my family child care home and are struggling because they need to go back to work and need quality care for their young child,” says A Sense of Wonder’s Rhodes. “In Henderson County, the family child care homes try to help parents out by referring children who need care. I also work with one center by referring children who need care. I guarantee if you call the centers and homes in this area, most of them have a waiting list. There’s not enough places for children to go during the day.”
“Infant and toddler care is more expensive to provide,” says Amy Barry, executive director of the Buncombe Partnership for Children, who further explains that there are fewer spots available. Buncombe Partnership for Children (buncombepfc.org), formerly known as Smart Start, is an excellent resource for parents. Their goals include raising quality in early education, supporting families, advancing child health, and expanding childhood literacy.
A key initiative for Buncombe Partnership for Children is the First 2,000 Days Initiative, which is based on findings that the first 2,000 days of a child’s life—birth to kindergarten—are critical in their development. Research finds that children who are enrolled in a quality early childhood program score significantly higher on standardized language and math tests; have higher earnings, pay more in taxes, and are less likely to rely on government assistance; and are five times less likely than their counterparts to become chronic criminal offenders as adults.
Another important role of Buncombe Partnership for Children is their administering of the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NC Pre-K), formerly known as More at 4. This is a free pre-kindergarten program for eligible four-year-old children, which supports the child’s development and literacy skills. Applications are now being accepted for the 2017-2018 school year; parents will start receiving notifications this month (May 2017). Over 350 children in Buncombe County are served annually by this program. Seventy-five percent of the state median income guidelines apply. For example: The state median income, as of 2015, was $34,090 (family of two) and $50,133 (family of four). So in the case of a single-parent household, as long as the annual income was $25,567 or less, or for a family of four, $37,599 or less, they would be eligible for the program.
In addition to income, other qualifiers include children who turn four years of age by August 31, will be entering kindergarten the following school year, and who may be at-risk for poor school outcomes. There are a number of factors that can influence poor school outcomes. Among them are: low family income; children with an identified disability; limited English proficiency; a chronic health condition; and a developmental or educational need. Prioritization for enrollment is given to children with no previous child care experience, children with active duty military caregiver(s), and children with special needs.
Bailey shares that children who participate in the program learn key skills, such as functioning in a group setting, learning to transition and make decisions, and experiencing social and emotional growth.
There are currently four North Carolina Pre-K sub-contractors in Buncombe County, with 23 licensed sites and 40 classrooms. In a timely stroke, while this Capital at Play report was being prepared, it was announced that Buncombe County was planning to lease a vacant, county-owned building located very near Eliada’s property to Eliada for $1 a year; Eliada plans to renovate the 7,834-sq.-ft. building and use it for infant and toddler care and pre-kindergarten services, effectively expanding Eliada’s capacity by 60 by around September 1; 28 of those 60 spots will be reserved for Pre-K children. In an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was quoted as saying, “Early childhood education helps children thrive in their academic careers. The benefits extend through their lifetime. These kids are healthier. They see greater success in the work place… The rationale is there are 3- and 4-year-old kids in Buncombe County right now who we know could be helped by Pre-K. That means that many kids are on the pathway of support that can help change their lives.”
Child Care Challenges
One of the biggest challenges that local centers face is paying teachers with a four-year degree. Many early childhood teachers transition to a teaching position at an elementary school, where not only is the pay better, but perhaps also the level of respect they receive.
“Many centers can’t afford to pay people with a four-year degree,” says Blaylock. “A lot of four-year degree people in early childhood are a licensed teacher, but people don’t look at them with the same level of respect as an elementary teacher in the school system. Many of them will leave and go into a public school system and teach kindergarten because they feel more respected.”
Eliada’s McCrain says that Eliada Child Development Center is blessed to have teachers who are well-educated and committed to providing high quality early education for the children that they serve. “The biggest challenge I face as a director is being able to pay the teachers comparable to their education,” she says. “In order to serve North Carolina pre-kindergarten children, our lead teachers must obtain a North Carolina Birth-through-Kindergarten or Preschool Add-on Standard Professional II license. This license is the same license that public school teachers hold, and preschool teachers go through more intense monitoring and an evaluation process without the same benefit of a set pay scale funded by the federal government.”
“Early education is not a money-making business,” says Rhodes. “It’s one of the lowest paying fields and it should be the highest. It’s a struggle for child care programs and parents. The cost is extremely high and sometimes difficult for parents to pay; however, their tuition doesn’t even cover the costs, mainly because of teacher salaries. I know this from experience. Last year I was paying almost $1,600 for two children and barely taking home a paycheck. With me running my own business, I can keep costs down low because it’s just me and five children.”
Another challenge for child care centers is the rising cost of providing high quality child care. McCrain notes that the cost to provide high quality care increases as regulations increase. “The State Subsidy Program helps families who qualify, however the reimbursement to providers does not cover the total cost of care for child care providers,” she says. At Eliada Child Development Center, 65 percent of their families are single-parent households that struggle to make ends meet.
At the end of each day, you’ll find parents across the region picking up their child at their child care center of choice. Hopefully it has been a good day—one filled with learning and laughter and friends. While the immediate need of a caregiver for the child was met, so much more is offered at the centers.
Take for example, Emmanuel, who started in Eliada’s infant classroom at seven weeks old with club feet and developmental delays due to Down Syndrome. He wore special shoes that limited his movements. In his three years at Eliada, he has had three surgeries on his feet and his physical therapist has worked relentlessly with him. For a time, Emmanuel had a yellow walker and he could be seen scooting around outside, stopping to wave hello, and blowing kisses to his classmates and teachers. Today, Emmanuel is in the three-year-old classroom and can walk and move around without a walker. He participates in all the classroom activities and is on track to enter pre-kindergarten with his peers. [Ed. note: Shortly after this report was published, Eliada issued a press release touting the achievements Emmanuel – “Manny” to his teachers and classmates – had made to date, and added, “His teachers have also heard him start to try to speak-which is huge progress. Many of his classmates have been with him since they were in the infant classroom. It’s amazing to watch them support and protect him. Next year Manny will be entering a prekindergarten classroom.”]
Stories such as that are plentiful in child care centers where a safe and loving environment allows for learning and growth.
“It’s not babysitting—it’s early childhood education,” says Blaylock. “It’s not just a place to park your child while you work each day. It’s a really critical part of their development.”
CHILD CARE RESOURCES
Mountain Child Care Connections
The Division of Child Development & Early Education
Buncombe Partnership for Children
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