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New approach to early learning hopes to improve access

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Jackelyn Severin

South Dakota families are struggling to find quality childcare. Affordable preschool opportunities are also in high demand. A new approach addresses this crisis with early learning communities throughout the state. The goal is to promote better access at the local level.

Kayla Klein walks through Manuel Brothers Park in Lead, South Dakota showing me what she calls an early learning trail. There are posted signs along with painted sidewalk displays of colorful letters, pictures, numbers, and a familiar game.

“You look at the sign, and it says play hopscotch, toss a small rock onto one of the squares, then hop to it. You can also ask them, what number your rock landed on what color your rock landed on,” says Klein, “I mean it’s really just simple stuff but if it weren’t here, you wouldn’t think or have the opportunity to do it as a parent.”

Klein is the Interim Director of Early Learner South Dakota.

These trails are small part of a bigger initiative called early learning communities. Klein says the goal is for all families to have access to high quality early learning experiences whether that’s at home with family, in a home daycare, or a childcare center.

“Basically, what we are saying is parents are the first and best teachers for their kids, and that will never change, but how much pressure could we take off of parents and how much greater could this process be if the community just wrapped their arms around the family as well.”

Rapid City was the first in the state to become an early learning community. Mayor Steve Allender was instrumental in bringing the concept to South Dakota. He learned about it at a National League of Cities conference which has a step-by-step action guide to creating an early learning community.

Allender, a former police chief, says investing in early learning is a way for government to be proactive and to help break the cycle of poverty and crime.

“Throughout America we're producing people, babies, who will grow up and be dependent on the system, on the government system, in one way or the other. Either through economic assistance, or incarceration, or drug or alcohol treatment. And the rates of those occurrences is really unsustainable.”

Early Learner Rapid City started in 2018. It has a resource guide which anyone can access on the Early Learner South Dakota website.

There are four partner organizations overseeing the city’s efforts including the John T. Vucurevich Foundation.

Jess Gromer works at the foundation. She says the pandemic has stalled many of Early Learner Rapid City’s efforts, but it did allow them to create a strong organizational structure. She says Rapid City is now better prepared to address the challenges the pandemic exacerbated.

Gromer says one of those challenges is finding qualified workers.

“When you have fast food chains, offering anywhere from 15 to 20 dollars an hour, your retail stores 20 dollars an hour to stock shelves, who's going to want to work as a childcare worker for 12, 13, maybe 14 dollars an hour?”

Nicole Weiss, Early Learning Director of the Rapid City YMCA, lives that reality every day.

We are about 16 full-time staff short.”

The Rapid City YMCA provides infant care and early learning programs for toddlers and preschoolers. On the day I interviewed Weiss, she was scrambling to cover for a staff member who called in sick.

“It is very hard to continue growing the program. It’s hard to maintain the quality that our parents have come to expect and that we want to provide when we're in survival mode all the time. And that's what it is each day. We wake up and we think how we are going to stay in ratio, stay legal, and stay open today.”

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Jackelyn Severin

Weiss says parents call every day to check for openings at the various programs they offer throughout the city. She says there are 450 kids on their waiting list.

“Right now, if somebody has an infant, the waitlist is almost three years for them. And we're hearing that all over town. So, for you to be able to go back to work, it's just not an option right now.”

Weiss wants to maintain quality at their program, so they require a four-year degree or a Childhood Development Associate Credential for teachers. She says quality staff leads to better outcomes.

“Studies show that more than 80% of brain development happens in the first five years, if these kids aren't making those connections, then they're not going to be ready to make more connections when they get to kindergarten.”

Weiss says play-based learning with engaged teachers prepares students for kindergarten. She also says it’s important to teach young children essential social and emotional skills, but this can be emotionally draining for her staff.

“When you have to go over 1000 times a day and say, look at his face, how does he feel right now? What can you do to help him feel better? You know, it's a lot harder than saying, hey stop that or go play or I'm taking the toy because you guys can't share it.”

She says Rapid City’s efforts to become an early learning community have made people aware of the issues surrounding childcare.

“Like my first 10 years you, you didn't hear anybody talking about it anywhere outside of the field. And so, I think that Rapid City is on the right path and they’re trying to take it to everybody. Not just say you have to be in a childcare center but saying, hey if you want to watch kids here’s how you can do it a little bit better. Here’s some tools for you. Here’s some resources and networking.”

Weiss also hopes that state lawmakers take notice. Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender says communities can step up as the state falls behind.

“South Dakota is one of about four states that refuses to even appoint an advisory committee to look into the issue. And that's rejected on party lines. So, we're in a poor environment right now for making change.”

Allender says he hopes more cities in South Dakota will become early learning communities and then put pressure on state legislators to take action.

SDPB’s education department has members on the leadership team for Early Learner South Dakota and the governing board for the South Dakota Association Education of Young Children. SDPB provides educational resources and partners with them and their members.