Infant and toddler care is hard to find. A new provider just opened in Haltom City


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FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

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A new Haltom City child care center that launched in September will serve infants and toddlers — a type of care advocates and child care providers say is increasingly expensive and rare, especially as pre-K expands in districts across Tarrant County.

Audrey Rowland, the founder and CEO of Green Space Learning, a nature-based playground company that runs a nature preschool, launched the new child care center for children aged 6 weeks to 3 years in the first week of September.

“This is an age group that often gets kind of lost in the shuffle of preschool and school readiness … (in) the way that we organize care around older children,” Rowland said. “So we wanted to have an environment where they can move freely, where they can experience nature outdoors … where we trust the child to be capable and to engage with their environment.”

Unlike other infant and toddler care providers, which group classrooms by age, Rowland said the new Green Space early childhood center will have mixed rooms, allowing for more flexibility in the number of children who can be cared for.

“The space is appropriate for all ages, so that we can meet the demand of enrollment without the restrictions of the physical space,” she said.

Enrollment opened for the new center on Sept. 6, with a capacity of 20 children.

Broken model leaves infant care providers vulnerable

Child care providers typically provide care for both infants and toddlers as well as preschool-aged children.

But by state law they can only care for four infants at a time, while they can care for up to 18 preschool-aged children, making those students financially necessary in order for the providers to stay in business.

“Child care providers or child care programs are usually not breaking even when they are serving … infants and toddlers and are making up for the cost with those 3- and 4-year-olds,” said Mandi Kimball, vice president of Children at Risk . “So that’s what really helps a lot with the sustainability of their business.”

As public schools expand free pre-K options, however, providers risk losing some of those older children , jeopardizing their ability to care for the more expensive age group.

That impact was seen in a 2015 micro-study by Camp Fire First Texas, an education nonprofit that works with Fort Worth schools as well as early learning centers.

The organization found that there were unintended consequences when Fort Worth rolled out universal pre-K in 2014.

In the study, 80% of child care centers reported an impact on the financial stability of their program and 18% of all providers reported that without the 4-year-olds in their program, they are likely to close. Other unintended consequences included rising tuition and a decline in quality for private providers.

Rowland said infant and toddler care in general is endangered because of this expansion, which includes Arlington schools this year.

“It is just really important for us to find a model of infant-toddler care that is high quality and financially feasible,” she said.

Part of that model is finding ways to balance revenues from various sources. Green Space Learning, for example, provides several after-school programs at Fort Worth schools.

“We see those as supportive of infant-toddler child care centers as well,” Rowland said. “So it’s really just kind of finding the places where revenue is and balancing that out.”

Groups explore new cost models for early learning

Child care for infants and toddlers has long been hard to find and expensive for both parents and providers.

An outdated formula for pricing and competing interests have limited the options parents have, and put them in difficult positions, often at some of the most pivotal times in their lives. Providers and county officials are looking for solutions.

An analysis by the Texas Policy Lab found that 52.4% of markets in Tarrant County are considered provider deserts for child care for children aged 0-3. When factoring in the quality of providers, 98.3% of markets in Tarrant County are considered deserts, leaving just a handful of quality-rated programs for parents to choose from.

Child Care Associates, one of the largest providers of child care in North Texas, is working with the county and other partners to reassess the costs of infant and toddler care as well as the income of early educators to shift the way the system operates.

A large part of that plan includes spending $28 million to build out infrastructure for infant and toddler classrooms.

At a County Commission meeting in May, Child Care Associates CEO Kara Waddell pointed out wide swaths of Tarrant County with no available, affordable infant-toddler care.

According to the presentation, to maximize existing infrastructure and resources, the county and Child Care Associates will seek partnerships with municipalities, school districts, higher education and other public entities with a goal of doubling the county’s investment of $28 million and adding 50 new infant-toddler classrooms in high-need neighborhoods.

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, we did the same thing in our community back when we had the opportunity to expand Head Start,” Waddell told the Star-Telegram at the time. “You only had half-day pre-K in the state of Texas, so we had a lot of public investment. Cities put in land and money and…

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