Watch: "A Visit to El Centro" | 2:24
Nearly 6 of 10 Latinx families in KC face a shortage of quality early child care – a trend mirrored across the country. Innovative approaches cut through systemic barriers to serve the community better.
Busy parents in Wyandotte County, Kansas, lean on those that are closest and most connected to their culture – often grandparents, neighbors, or a friend from church – to provide child care that is safe. Without many accessible or culturally relevant licensed child care providers, parents make the best choice available.
This is very much the case among Latinx residents. Nearly 5,000 Hispanic children under the age of 5 live in Wyandotte County, but quality child care services are scarce and difficult to access. For the county as a whole – one of the poorest in Kansas – the supply of licensed child care facilities meets only 28 percent of the demand.
That grim percentage mirrors trends in the Kansas City region and nationwide. Nearly 6 of 10 Hispanic families in Kansas City, Missouri, face a shortage of quality child care.
Simply put, Kansas and Missouri don’t have enough spots for every child who could access Head Start, and because of systemic barriers, fewer than 10 percent of low-income Latinx parents are accessing state child care subsidy.
Beyond a lack of quality seats, reasons for this gap in early education for Latinx families are many and complex.
Language can be a barrier. So can affordability. And in a political climate that has rapidly turned more hostile toward immigrants and Spanish-speaking families, many parents are afraid to leave their children with people they don’t know.
"Our families believe in education. There is no doubt," said Irene Caudillo, president and CEO of the nonprofit agency El Centro. "But they're also working three jobs, and living in an environment that sometimes doesn't see them as American."
Yet, there is great potential to cultivate not only academically successful students, but students who are multilingual as well – a skill of immense value in a more diverse, global future economy.
Since the 1990’s, El Centro has served preschoolers through its Academy for Children. More recently, the center’s leadership sought an innovative approach and created a dual-language learning model.
This means the Academy embraces a student’s home language – be it Spanish or English – while also preparing children ages 2-and-a-half to 5 to succeed academically in English-speaking kindergartens.
"One of the major gaps that we're filling is for children coming from homes where Spanish is the home language," said Geralyn Sosinski, the Academy’s director. "We want to make sure they continue to grow in their Spanish skills, but then also have the English they need to be successful in school."
Parents often start out skeptical of the dual-language approach, Caudillo said. They think the quickest route to success in America is mastery of English, even if that means jettisoning the language of their homeland.
But, Caudillo said, children don’t have to give up Spanish. "Their minds are ready for multiple languages. So the idea is to help the parent understand what an asset it can be in the future to be multilingual."
A goal is to empower and enable parents and guardians to assist with their children’s schooling. The Academy hosts a monthly "family fun night," and parents are invited to take books and educational materials home with them.
El Centro’s Academy for Children serves families year-round, from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days a week. Tuition is based on a family’s income. The Academy serves 84 students, but with consistent increase in demand, it is currently looking to expand into new space.
But even if that happens, the need for quality child care in Wyandotte County, and specifically for Latinx families, remains urgent.
To help fill the gaps, the Kansas City Area Parents as Teachers Consortium turns to the resources at hand – those neighbors, friends, and family members who watch children when parents go to work.
Under the Consortium’s Supporting Care Providers Through Personal Visits (SCPV) program, Spanish-speaking staffers fan out to libraries, festivals, and other family-friendly locations to connect with people who care for small children.
If a provider seems to be a good fit for the program, an educator will visit the home and help create an environment where young children can safely play and learn. The educator will then make regular monthly visits for up to two years, sharing tips on child development and ideas for fun learning activities. Providers also have the opportunity to learn basic first aid, including CPR, and the fundamentals of running a child care business.
Maria Rios, an SCPV Provider Educator, recalls visiting a provider’s home the first time and finding mostly empty rooms. Now, she says the provider can’t wait to show off her newly acquired educational materials.
"She is so excited to say, 'Look, I went out and found this toy at a yard sale. And I’m teaching them numbers. And we’re doing activities. And we’re going outside and looking for things for science.'"
A light bulb often comes on when Rios explains the role of learning in a child’s brain development.
"That is so impactful to them," she said. "Because now they are empowering those children for school readiness, which is going to impact our school district and our economy in general. That’s when they say, 'Yes, my job is important. I make a difference in the children’s lives and the parents are able to go to work because I am here taking care of the children’s day.'"
Like El Centro’s Academy for Children, the Supporting Care Providers program faces challenges to grow.
Both programs are constantly seeking financial resources and new funders and partners. El Centro is involved in talks with a broad coalition of groups about finding space and resources to open additional child care facilities for low-income families. The Parents as Teachers Consortium wants to extend the length of time it can work with families, but needs to hire more staffers. Finding qualified bilingual educators and compensating them properly is a challenge for both programs.
Community support for successful models such as SCPV and El Centro’s Academy is critical. Of the rising kindergartners at the Academy, 94 percent are assessed as kindergarten-ready, setting a strong foundation for long-term success in life and learning.
"We’ve been able to expand and grow to create an opportunity where diverse kids are encouraged to learn about a language and culture that has been important to us for many generations," Caudillo said. "Our push every day is for a stronger education."