Community collaboration offers new vision of child care

  • Kids attending the day program at Camp Takodah in Richmond head in for lunch after spending the morning outside. Aaron Lipsky / Keene Sentinel

  • Ella Naso, 8, makes 3D snowflakes as program director Frances Ashworth lends a hand with a ruler Thursday at the day program being held at Camp Takodah in Richmond. Aaron Lipsky / Keene Sentinel

The Keene Sentinel
Published: 12/7/2020 5:49:07 PM

Ella Salzmann’s parents planned for her to spend the summer at the Monadnock Regional School District’s Project Beyond the Bell summer camp. But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced camp to be held virtually, they had to cobble together a child care plan.

Ella spent a lot of time with her mom, Audrey, in her office at Cutler Elementary School, where she is the principal. Other days, Ella went to work with her dad, Chuck, an independent contractor.

“In terms of child care itself, there really were not a lot of options. She’s 10, so she’s not old enough to be alone,” Audrey Salzmann said “. . . We kind of had to take turns taking responsibility and making sure she was in a safe and kind of fun atmosphere.”

And as the new school year approached, the Salzmanns again weren’t sure how they would handle child care for Ella, a fifth-grader at Wells Memorial School in Harrisville, which operated under a hybrid model for most of the academic year before transitioning to fully remote instruction this month.

They talked with a few friends about hiring a learning coach to work with a small group of kids on days they were learning remotely, Audrey Salzmann said. But then her employer came up with an alternative.

Since the beginning of the school year, the Monadnock district has partnered with YMCA Camp Takodah in Richmond to offer child care and academic support for children of staff members. Jeremy Rathbun, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the program stemmed from a concern that staff members, like Audrey Salzmann, wouldn’t be able to come to school if they had to stay home with their own children.

“Our kids need to go to school, and in order to go to school, we need our staff members available to them,” Rathbun said. “We needed to find a way that staff could feel like their family was being taken care of so that they could take care of others.”

The district found that way when Camp Takodah offered the use of its space for free.

“This isn’t being funded by the district. This is being funded by the families,” Rathbun said. “The generosity of Camp Takodah has allowed us to make it possible for families to afford it, basically, because we’re not renting the space.”

The program has enrolled 32 children, including Ella Salzmann, and an average of 18 kids attend the program each day, depending on their hybrid school schedules, according to Frances Ashworth, who oversees the Camp Takodah program for the district. Parents pay on a sliding scale, based on household income, and monthly tuition ranges from $75 to $300 per child.

Programs like this are one of the many ways communities in the Monadnock Region have responded quickly to address the challenges of finding quality, affordable child care – issues that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but have only been exacerbated by the public health crisis.

And though the Monadnock district’s partnership with Camp Takodah is a relatively short-term fix, local leaders in the field say the sort of community collaboration that led to its creation could hold the key to building a better child care system moving forward.

Impact Monadnock

Community partnerships have been the foundation of the region’s most comprehensive child care initiative, Impact Monadnock, since its earliest days.

In 2011, the Monadnock United Way and the N.H. Charitable Foundation commissioned an assessment of social well-being and community needs in the Monadnock Region. Further study indicated that investment in child welfare, including supporting quality child care, would generate the greatest change. And Impact Monadnock was born in 2014 to undertake that work.

Impact Monadnock merged with the Monadnock United Way in 2017, and became the nonprofit’s signature early childhood initiative. Throughout its history, Impact Monadnock has worked to engage community leaders across sectors – including at businesses, government agencies, social service providers and other nonprofits – to make early childhood care and development a priority in the region, said Liz LaRose, president of the Monadnock United Way.

For example, LaRose said, the Impact Monadnock Business Ambassadors program, which encourages employers to adopt family-friendly policies ranging from on-site daycare to parental leave and more flexible work schedules, has attracted more than 20 local companies.

The group also works with state and federal government agencies to secure grant funding, like the Preschool Development Grant, a $3.8 million federal grant that the University of New Hampshire received in 2019. Impact Monadnock received a portion of those funds, which the group used to ask families about their experiences in an effort to identify ways to improve the local child care system.

Overall, the community engagement and various programs Impact Monadnock has undertaken make the group a model for other communities in the state, said Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning N.H., a statewide nonprofit working on child care issues.

“I think of Impact Monadnock as a real beacon of the way a community can come together around early childhood [education],” Cowell said. “I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve really wrapped themselves around early childhood development through their work as Impact Monadnock.”

The pyramid model

Impact Monadnock also works extensively on bolstering the quality of child care programs in the area by focusing on supporting and training early childhood center staff through a set of best practices known as the pyramid model.

“The work that has been done is focused on supports for quality for early childhood educators … to reduce burnout, to give them more strategies to deal with challenging behaviors,” said Dottie Bauer, who works as a consultant for Impact Monadnock and is a professor emerita of early childhood education at Keene State College.

“And what Impact Monadnock does is kind of becomes the catalyst to bring together groups of people who are interested in these issues, and get them to work collectively,” Bauer added.

The pyramid model is a broad approach to the essential elements of early childhood education, with an effective workforce forming the foundation of the “pyramid.”

Teachers in programs that follow the pyramid model receive continued training on how to best teach children skills such as labeling their own feelings and emotions and learning how to be a good friend.

Higher layers of the pyramid focus on creating an environment in which families and early childhood educators feel competent and supported, and kids develop social-emotional skills to help them succeed throughout their lives.

Impact Monadnock is currently working with three area child care centers to implement the pyramid model, including offering training and coaching for staff members. Ultimately, Bauer said, the consistent, comprehensive staff support offered through the pyramid model, rather than sporadic one-time professional development sessions, can help child care centers address the critical issue of staffing shortages.

“Right now, the big crisis, in my conversations with people, is staffing,” she said. “[Child care centers] cannot get new staff. They are running short-staffed, and it’s exacerbated by COVID big-time. And they cannot run at full capacity with children if they don’t have staff. . . . So the real crisis is the human one right now.”

The Keene Day Care Center is one of the sites implementing the pyramid model. The center is in its third year working under this model, and Suelaine Poling, the center’s executive director, said her roughly 30 staff members have found the trainings helpful and effective.

“They see the magic,” Poling said. “It really sort of feels like magic to them, sometimes, when these things will work so dramatically.”

That’s just one of the ways the pyramid model seeks to build a more effective child care system, said Annie Dintino, a project manager with Impact Monadnock, who leads many of the pyramid model trainings locally.

“It increases the success of the overall situation,” Dintino said. “Teachers feel more competent, children feel more successful and have more autonomy in the classroom. Families have a similar skillset to support children. It increases communication between teachers and families.”

Beyond the pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Bauer said, the local child care centers implementing the pyramid model were seeing great progress in terms of staff stability, and the level of support employees were receiving.

“I could really, tangibly see that,” she said. “And we’re trying to work with the state to figure out how does that get measured, because so much of it feels anecdotal. But there was stability within centers that was different.”

Research elsewhere has shown that children in classrooms using the pyramid model have better social skills and fewer behavioral challenges than students in standard early childhood classrooms, according to the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations, based at the University of South Florida. The center’s research also found teachers implement pyramid model practices better if they receive training and continued coaching.

But, just as the coronavirus outbreak has affected nearly every facet of life, the pandemic has upended Impact Monadnock’s ability to gauge its progress on staff retention and support.

“It’s harder to see right now, but certainly part of the staff crisis that I’m aware of is COVID-related,” Bauer said. “Either families have got kids at home and the educator is the one who stays home with them, so they can’t be in both places, or they have their own health concerns and they’re leaving for those reasons.”

But child care experts like Jess Carson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who researches the issue, say the pandemic may spur communities and government at all levels to invest more in early childhood education.

“I think the pandemic, for better or worse, provided an opportunity to really illustrate how essential child care really is to the economy, when all of a sudden, nobody had it anymore,” Carson said. “When child care centers and providers were shuttered and schools were closed, it became immediately apparent how many of our workers are parents, and how necessary having some kind of care for their children is in order to continue to be productive employees, and to continue to support a robust economy.”

For example, Audrey Salzmann, the Cutler School principal, can’t work from home while her school is holding in-person classes.

“The tricky part is that, in my role at the school, I really need to be there all day every day,” she said. “So to be able to know that Ella goes somewhere safe every day really allows me to focus on my job at work, and helping our families in Swanzey.”

And making child care responses from the pandemic like this more long-term, Cowell said, requires community collaboration and investment at all levels.

“I think what we’re all hoping from this tragedy of the pandemic is that there might be a silver lining in that, not just rebuilding child care, can we reinvent child care?” Cowell said. “Can we build it back so that it is stronger, so programs don’t have to struggle as much and families don’t have to worry about affording it? Can we figure that out, can we really think about that together?”

The Sentinel’s “Pandemic Parenting” project is supported by a competitive grant from the nonpartisan Solutions Journalism Network. The Sentinel retains editorial control. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 




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