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Making child care sustainable

March 25, 2022
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Wisconsin’s Workforce Innovation Grant will test child care solutions

STURGEON BAY, WI. MARCH 24, 2022 – Like child care centers across the country, the Barker Center in Sturgeon Bay closed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In summer 2020, leaders at the center – the only licensed group child care in the city – decided it couldn’t afford to reopen.

“That was catastrophic for a lot of families,” said Alexis Heim Peter, a member of the Door County Board of Supervisors, whose son attended the center. “Child care centers and licensed home providers are very scarce in Door County. Child care is necessary infrastructure, the same as bridges and highways.”

The United Way of Door County, parents, child care workers, employers and community members all rallied to save Sturgeon Bay’s child care center. A Barker Center employee stepped forward with an offer to run the center as a nonprofit. The Door County Medical Center, whose employees rely on the center for care, paid the building’s lease and agreed to provide maintenance. Community fundraisers generated other support.

The center, now called the Door Community Child Development Center, reopened in the fall of 2020.

Child care “impacts every single person in this community,” said Amy Kohnle, executive director of the United Way of Door County. “If we don’t have someone providing child care, we do not have a workforce.”

A Workforce Innovation Grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) worth up to $3.5 million will allow the United Way of Door County and its community partners to strengthen the county’s child care workforce in hopes of creating a long-term, sustainable approach to affordable, high-quality child care that can be replicated elsewhere. The initiatives include construction and remodeling for the county’s two nonprofit child care centers, making changes to the centers’ business models and creating affordable housing.

“The exciting part of the work being done here in Door County is how all parts of the community are engaged in finding solutions,” said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of WEDC. “Door County is experimenting with new child care business models, ways of providing 4K instruction and even affordable housing solutions to find out what works when it comes to supporting high-quality child care that’s affordable for families and provides child care workers with a good living.”

Hughes, Department of Administration (DOA) Secretary-designee Kathy Blumenfeld, Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) Secretary-designee Cheryll Olson-Collins, DWD Deputy Secretary Pamela McGillivray and Erin Arango-Escalante, administrator of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Division of Early Care and Education met with representatives from United Way of Door County, employers, affordable housing advocates and community members to discuss how a Workforce Innovation Grant will improve child care options in Door County.

“Child care is one piece of the workforce puzzle that has been a challenge for Wisconsin families and workers, and one that families often need help with solving,” Blumenfeld said. “Ensuring folks have reliable and affordable child care will have long-term benefits for Door County, and it’s why we’re so excited to support these Workforce Innovation Grants.”

Community collaboration is a key part of the Workforce Innovation Grants.

“We continue to see that when businesses, child care providers, community organizations, and other stakeholders come together, we all benefit,” Arango-Escalante said. “We are very excited to watch Door County’s partnership and program grow, and hope that it encourages other communities to think about sustainable child care solutions.”

With the Workforce Innovation Grant funding, the partners are looking at helping both nonprofit child care centers in the county, Door Community Child Development Center in Sturgeon Bay and Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay, make physical improvements to their buildings that would allow them to open up additional child care slots.

“This investment in high-quality early care and education is essential to Door County’s short- and long-term economic growth,” Olson-Collins said. “Accessible and affordable child care helps ensure that parents who wish to work can do so, and stable child care supports businesses with a more reliable and productive workforce. Overall, this investment helps families improve their financial security and well-being while accelerating economic growth in the region.”

The Door Community Child Development Center is looking at expanding into a new building while the grant will allow the Northern Door Children’s Center to install a room divider in the new space being added for a pilot 4K program.

“Wisconsin’s strong economic recovery and high labor force participation rate mean that access to quality affordable child care is more important than ever, McGillivray said. “Supporting child care providers with improved facilities, access to affordable housing, and opportunities for professional growth are critical in this essential field. DWD applauds the innovative approach by the Door County partners.”

But additions and new buildings are only part of the solution, Kohnle and others said.

“We can build a bigger center but if we don’t have staff we’re not solving anything,” she said.

One of the biggest hurdles to recruiting child care workers is that the field is a historically low paying career.

Recently both the centers in this project have raised wages. At Northern Door Children’s Center, lead teachers are making $20 an hour and teachers make $17 an hour, said Cindy Trinkner-Peot, the center’s executive director. They do not offer health insurance – something that is common in the child care industry – but provide staff with a stipend to purchase insurance on their own.

But while the wage increase has helped retain staff, Trinkner-Peot said she’s still in need of more child care workers.  And that wages alone cannot solve the problem.

“Housing is way out of the normal person’s realm of affordability in Door County,” Trinkner-Peot said.

The median cost of homes in the county in 2021 was about $350,000, according to the Door County Housing Partnership.

The United Way project has begun working with a local effort to save usable homes that are being demolished for new construction including old resort cabins and move them to new sites to provide affordable housing. The group is looking at ways to designate some of these homes for child care workers, Kohnle said.

Doug Marvin, a lead teacher at Northern Door Children’s Center, was forced to move twice in recent years as the homes he was renting sold. A single father to two sons, he was able to build a new home for his family in 2020 through Habitat for Humanity. The home gives his family stability and him the ability to keep a job he loves working with 2 to 4-year-olds. He had started his career teaching Spanish to middle and high school students.

“I know I don’t make as much as a public school teacher does but maybe part of this is my way of giving back,” Marvin said. “I don’t know how to entice people to get into child care. For me it was just something I enjoyed – seeing the difference you make in kids and their reactions.”

In December, Gov. Tony Evers announced the first round of Workforce Innovation Grants awarding up to $59.5 million to 12 collaborative programs, the United Way of Door County’s project, working to solve Wisconsin’s workforce challenges.

The Workforce Innovation Grants are paid for by $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. Applications for a second round of funding are due April 15. More information on the program can be found here: wedc.org/workforce-innovation-grant

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