Hundreds of child care centers could open in Detroit, and they still may not fill the needs of the city’s youngest residents.
There are just 438 licensed child care centers in the city for Detroiters ages 0 to 5. Of those, 291 are home-based centers, limited to working with 12 children or less. Increasing capacity for childhood centers means more qualified staff, more classroom space and greater business overhead costs. As employers begin to feel the brunt of a workforce devoid of access to quality and affordable child care during a global pandemic, early childhood education advocates say now is the time to invest in local entrepreneurs.
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A poll released at the Mackinac Policy Conference last summer reported 62% of Michiganders support increased funding for childhood education. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a $1.4 billion plan to make child care more affordable and expanded eligibility criteria for free to low-cost child care.
Now it’s time to find funds for providers. In Detroit, that means supporting the women of color who put children’s needs first.
“The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of child care (and) early childhood education in a way that we had not had the opportunity to really push before because now, across the country, people can’t return to the workforce,” said Ashanti Bryant, director of early childhood services at IFF, a community development financial institution.
More than 800,000 women across the nation left the workforce within one month in 2020.
Bryant says his Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) has worked with about 25% of Detroit’s child care providers to learn the needs of the community and to help garner grant dollars to support growth. That includes the $50 million Marygrove Early Education Center on Detroit’s northwest side.
IFF found that 96% of the providers in Detroit are women, and most of those providers are Black and Brown women.
Bryant said that if women are the dominant providers for child care services, then early-childhood advocates should prioritize supporting the needs of women of color in Detroit. Bryant said that includes increasing homeownership rates, financial backing for new and existing businesses, and avenues for professional training and educational advancement.
In a 2020 study by the New Economy Initiative, Detroiters identified an entrepreneur as someone who develops a response to a community problem. Detroit providers are filling a need, but the problem-solvers lack the capital necessary to start and maintain a healthy business.
In the report by NEI, 44% of Detroit entrepreneurs said they had fallen behind on utility bills for gas, electricity or water. About 40% reported borrowing money from family or friends; 10% cashed out their pension or retirement; 15% took out a loan; and 6% filed for bankruptcy.
“They’re living in and working in a home that they don’t even own,” Bryant said. “The opportunity for ownership of real estate, even if it’s your home child care program, we have providers who have been working in the community for decades, leasing or renting a property.”
When Catrina Hurst opened Cole’s Castle, she was operating her child care center within her home with the help of her husband and mother-in-law. Hurst said she used funds from her 401(k) to start the business in 2003. She had earned the money by working at Children’s Hospital for over a decade, where she heard horror stories from parents who struggled to find affordable and safe child care options.
“I just really want the kids to have a safe place, so that when their parents come back and get them, they’ll be the same way as when they dropped them off,” Hurst said.
Cole’s Castle grew quickly, and even though Hurst says she preferred working with fewer than 12 children in her home, the need demanded that she shift to a bigger space. She can now accept up to 50 students and is open during the day and evening.
The small-business owner applied for grants from programs like Community Connections, a local grantmaking initiative that supports Detroiters, to help her secure cleaning supplies during the coronavirus pandemic and give her staff a raise.
“They help to lift the weight off of me, as far as some of the overhead costs and the programs that I like to do, but I couldn’t afford to get them done,” Hurst said.
Now Cole’s Castle operates as a private school. Her students are introduced to languages other than English, learning sign language and how to write, and participate in art and dance classes.
Chavonne McGowan also operates a private child care center. The business owner opened Seeds of Knowledge Creative Learning Center in a commercial building two years ago. McGowan, who has 20 years of experience working in K-12 education, said she wanted to open a space that met the needs of working parents and prepared Detroit children for school.
“I decided to open up a school so that I can make sure that when my kids leave, they don’t have those foundational gaps and also for their social emotional development,” McGowan said.
McGowan said she recognized a gap in children’s transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten. She said that the state expects students to know how to read by third grade but doesn’t implement policies in government-funded early childhood centers that teach students how to write their names before kindergarten.
McGowan said that’s a disservice to students whose families rely on state support for child care services. In addition to learning to write, McGowan’s students do yoga, discuss their feelings and take time to garden.
“We see a need to educate our children,” McGowan said. “It’s not just babysitting.”
McGowan was a Motor City Match recipient in 2019, a City of Detroit program that awards Detroit’s small-business owners grants to open or expand their operations. McGowan was able to use the money to purchase her building and open Seeds of Knowledge, where she can accept up to 37 children.
However, McGowan has limited her operations during coronavirus. She said her greatest barrier is staffing needs. It’s difficult to find qualified staff, and even though she’s willing to hire staff who are continuing their education, she doesn’t have the resources to help them achieve their goals while helping her business grow.
Though she continues to look for ways to build staff and increase the center’s capacity, McGowan said it’s no surprise to her that women of color in Detroit are working to address the demand for quality, affordable child care.
“I think it’s important to Black women,” she said. “We have been known to lead the charge and open up programs and centers and be a voice for our community. That’s just what we have to do.”