Focus is centers serving low-income families
For years, Community Action Inc., in Haverhill, Mass., ran a Head Start program for more than 200 children in a building that once was a turkey coop.
The facility, located on land once owned by a religious order, came with low rent and pastoral surroundings, said John Cuneo, the executive director of Community Action. But the kitchen didn’t meet local code, the walls lacked insulation, and in the winter, frozen pipes in an outbuilding used as classroom space regularly required Mr. Cuneo to run a hose from the main facility so the children and staff members could have water.
Many preschools that serve low-income and rural communities are managing programs in makeshift spaces that were never built with the needs of young children in mind. But thanks to a nonprofit in Boston called the Children’s Investment Fund, Mr. Cuneo and other preschool providers in the state are getting training and money to renovate old facilities or build new ones.
A bill that is expected to win approval in the Massachusetts legislature would set the stage for a constant source of money for the work of the Children’s Investment Fund.
At a time when early education is getting attention from leaders at the federal, state, and local levels, the approach to funding and technical assistance that Massachusetts and some other states are pursuing is seen by advocates as a model for expanding high-quality preschool options.
“What we’ve seen in the last four or five years, when the economy has been bad, is that borrowing for improving facilities has really leveled off and virtually disappeared,” said Mav Pardee, the program manager for the Children’s Investment Fund. “Programs have been very concerned about mere survival.”
But the current national conversation has provided a boost, and an opportunity to think, once again, about the facilities where children may spend hours each day. Facilities “are another dimension of quality,” Ms. Pardee said.
Poor Climate Control
James Eldridge, a Massachusetts state senator who chairs the legislature’s joint committee on housing, said he expected the Massachusetts measure—part of a $1.4 billion housing-bond bill—to become law by the end of this month. The legislation would provide a $45 million bond for improving child-care facilities.
In 2011, the Children’s Investment Fund conducted a survey of 182 child-care centers across the state that target a low-income population, and found many of them to be lacking.
Several programs were housed in facilities that did not meet building code. Seventy percent of the centers did not have classroom sinks. Forty percent lacked restrooms directly accessible from the classroom, considered a best practice for programs serving young children. Only one space was fully accessible for children with disabilities.
Also, one-third of the centers said they were not able to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures in the winter and summer.
While those findings are specific to Massachusetts, they are not unusual in other parts of the country for preschool providers who serve a low-income population, said Amy Gillman, the senior program director for the Community Investment Collaborative for Kids, a program of the New York City-based Local Initiatives Support Corp. The collaborative works nationwide to provide technical assistance and funding to preschool providers.
“There’s a misconception that there’s enough of an operating stream that you can set some of that aside to pay for improved facilities,” Ms. Gillman said.
In reality, the margins are thin. “We tell providers to never take from a program,” she said. “You don’t want to build a building for a poor-quality program.”
Convincing lawmakers of the importance of high-quality facilities is not difficult, according to Ms. Gillman. “Mostly we hear that, ‘Yes, we do acknowledge that facilities are an issue.’ But what it comes down to is resources and where is the funding going to come from,” she said.
States are taking a variety of approaches to support the construction and renovation of preschool centers.
The Pennsylvania departments of community and economic development and public welfare collaborated in making “Child Care Challenge Grants” totaling $10 million per year. The program resulted in the construction or renovation of 55 centers licensed to serve 3,365 children.
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North Carolina partnered with Self-Help Inc., a nonprofit community-development-finance institution, to guarantee loans to small center-based and home-based child-care businesses, using the federal Child Care and Development Fund.
Maryland’s business and economic development department has made child-care facility loans and loan guarantees to nonprofit and for-profit center-based programs. The state seeks private bank participation in the financing, charges market or slightly below-market rates, and writes the loans for 15 to 20 years.
The Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority partially guarantees private-sector child-care loans to improve the creditworthiness of loan applicants who would not otherwise qualify.
In Maine, providers who have earned a “quality certificate” are eligible for a variety of state financing incentives as well as a 10 percent to 15 percent bonus over the state child-care-subsidy fee.
The state contracts with the nonprofit Vermont Community Loan Fund to provide facilities-development assistance to centers. The nonprofit also administers a capital grant program that funds an annual state appropriation and sales of a special “Building Brighter Futures” child-care license plate.
States have taken several different tacks to meet the facilities needs of child-care providers. Some have provided direct grants, as Pennsylvania did from 2002 to 2004. During that time, the state awarded $30 million to 55 centers, which used the money to build or renovate their spaces.
Other states have chosen to establish permanent funding streams, such as what Massachusetts is attempting to do. Connecticut, through its Child Care Facilities Loan Fund, provides bond financing for nonprofits, guarantees loans to induce private lenders to work with providers, and offers direct loans to small centers and home-based providers.
An additional challenge for providers is developing the expertise to plan a renovation or building project and see it through to completion. Preschool directors may know how to hire a good teacher, but usually have no experience hiring a qualified architect, Ms. Gillman said.
In 2003, Mr. Cuneo went through a program sponsored by the Children’s Investment Fund called Building Stronger Centers, where he and other providers learned the nuts and bolts of managing a construction project.
The fund also helped connect him with MassDevelopment, the state’s financing authority, which underwrote the $1.5 million renovation project, completed in 2007. The program is now housed in a former elementary school that had been mothballed by the local school district.
“The most important thing is having quality classrooms,” Mr. Cuneo said. “They’re nicely laid out, they are colorful, they are decorated appropriately, there are sinks in each classroom, and toilet facilities. And we were able to upgrade the playground area.”
Donna M. Denette, the executive director of Children First Enterprises in rural Granby, Mass., also went through the Building Stronger Centers program. Before renovations, her center was operating out of a vacant hair salon, a church basement, and the corner of a school cafeteria.
After $1.7 million in renovations, completed in 2010, the center now has appropriate classroom space for the preschool and school-age population it serves.
“We had this great philosophy, great staff, great curriculum, but the facility just didn’t support staff,” Ms. Denette said. “There was no place to have a kid who was sick waiting to be picked up, no place to have a private meeting with a parent.”
“I never could have done it without” the Children’s Investment Fund, she said.