On a Monday in early September, a handful of Seward’s youngest residents sat in a circle on a rug inside the United Methodist Church. They’re students at Seward Sprouts Preschool, which opened its doors last fall as the only licensed child care center in a town that’s been labeled a “child care desert.”
Under the watchful eye of Christy Phillips and Tara Craytor, the preschoolers walked from their classroom across the hall for more activities — that day it was watercolors and dress up. Phillips and Craytor run Sprouts, which serves 20 students each semester through classes held three days per week.
That’s a big deal in a place like Seward, where, prior to Sprouts, there were no licensed child care centers in operation at all. Centers are different from group homes, which serve between nine and 12 students, and from homes, which are limited to eight students.
The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development’s business license database showed that there were nine businesses in Seward with active child care licenses. Of those, two were issued this year: one to Bug’z Playhouse and another to Little Pioneers Daycare. Sprouts is still the only child care center.
A 2020 survey conducted by HYPER, a parent resource group that operates under the Seward Prevention Coalition, found that nearly 80% of the 63 people surveyed reported that they were not satisfied with their access to quality, affordable child care. In a 2021 health needs assessment, child care was cited as a top priority, noting that a lack of resources is contributing to economic instability in Seward.
The city’s child care landscape also took a hit in spring 2021, when the Title I preschool operating at Seward Elementary School closed. The school became ineligible for funding the following school year after it failed to meet the need threshold, and has not regained that status.
In response to the shortage, the City of Seward has given financial resources to HYPER, which has used those funds to offer grant programs and make startup funds available to community members interested in becoming a child care provider. One new provider that’s opened with HYPER’s assistance is Seward Sprouts Preschool.
New kids on the block
Tara Craytor is a former special education intensive needs aide at Seward Elementary who now runs Sprouts preschool with Phillips. The role is one that came to her by way of her own need for child care and in the wake of new holes in Seward’s child care ecosystem.
Seward Sprouts started as a cooperative preschool, which Craytor’s son attended eight years ago, as part of which parents signed up to help run the program and received child care for the kids in return. Craytor’s son, now 11, is a Seward Sprouts co-op alum who left the program to attend the Title I preschool program at Seward Elementary School.
Then, the Title I program closed. Craytor said that’s when she and Phillips started trying to find solutions.
“Chris and I got together, we’re like, ‘We want our kids to go to preschool (and) we want the other children of Seward to be able to go to preschool,’” Craytor said. “Obviously we all know how important early childhood education is. It’s mind-boggling that we’re not going to have a preschool in this town.”
Jessica Scogin, KPBSD’s federal programs coordinator, said that Seward Elementary lost its Title I preschool program when it became ineligible for federal Title I funding. The funding is made available under the Every Student Succeeds Act and is meant to support schools that have high percentages of economically disadvantaged students.
Within KPBSD, Scogin said Title I funds are used for elementary and K-12 schools where at least 40% of students are economically disadvantaged. That rate, she said, is calculated based on multiple data sources including from the National School Lunch Programs and others, certification in public assistance programs and income declaration forms filled out by families.
That information is collected annually and sent to the State of Alaska, Scogin said.
The last time Seward Elementary School qualified for Title I status was during the 2021-2022 school year, she said. The district’s most recent data show that 38.2% of Seward Elementary students are considered economically disadvantaged.
For the current school year, Scogin said four KPBSD schools — Mountain View Elementary, Tustumena Elementary, Redoubt Elementary and Voznesenka School — are using Title I funds to operate preschool programs.
Craytor said Sprouts operates on a preschool model that emphasizes school readiness for children going into kindergarten, while also aiming to be affordable and accessible to parents. They charge $250 per month for their three-day-per-week program, which Craytor said is on par with private preschools.
“That was an amount … as parents that we’d be comfortable paying ourselves,” Craytor said.
The school serves 10 students during each morning session and another 10 students during an evening session. Wednesdays, Craytor said, are reserved for an “outdoor day” — previous trips have included the beach, the Seward Post Office and the food bank.
On the school readiness side, Craytor said Sprouts follows the State of Alaska’s early education standards, which include benchmarks like holding a pencil correctly and cutting in a straight line. She said kindergarten teachers can tell the difference between students with some level of school readiness and those without.
“We loosely assess the kids and then help them on their way to school readiness,” Craytor said.
An important component of Sprouts being able to open, Craytor said, was the assistance HYPER provided.
City steps in
HYPER coordinator Warner’s foray into the child care scene also started with her own struggle to find care for her kids. She’s a single mom with two children who said she was able to find care for her daughter with one provider and care for her son with another.
“I would say that I was lucky in being able to access that child care and just knowing how difficult that was, for me, personally,” Warner said. “Just knowing how difficult that was for me personally, I can only imagine what it’s like for families now with less.”
HYPER evolved from a side interest Warner said she developed while running a “Parents as Educators” program under the Seward Prevention Coalition. After getting the greenlight from the coalition’s executive director, Warner said she started with a survey through which she said HYPER connected with about 60 respondents who collectively had about 90 kids.
“A lot of families were working with a hodgepodge of child care,” she said. “They were using friends or (working) opposite shifts as their spouse, or just hiring somebody next door to babysit for them, even leaving the workforce.”
Warner said she then took her data to the Seward City Council to explain her findings. HYPER received a $500,000 pass-through grant from the city after explaining why more child care was key to the city’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, Norwegian Cruise Lines gave Seward $1 million for that purpose and it was up to cities to decide how best to spend it.
Using their pass-through grant, HYPER established a startup fund that makes available money to people in the community who want to become child care providers.
Through that grant program, HYPER makes available $7,500 in startup funds and offers bimonthly technical support. If the provider becomes licensed with the State of Alaska within six months of receiving the funds, that provider becomes eligible for a bonus payment of $2,500.
A learning experience
Becoming a licensed child care provider in Alaska is not a simple process. HYPER Program Developer Rosie Patnode helps potential providers navigate the paperwork and bureaucracy associated with the process. The first step, Patnode said, is figuring out the type of child care facility they want to run.
In Alaska, there are three types of child care licenses: home, group home and center.
Child care businesses that operate with a home license are limited to eight children and must be administered by someone who is at least 21 years old, who has experience working with children and who lives in the residence the business operates out of.
Businesses that operate with a group home license may serve between nine and 12 children. That business administrator must meet the same requirements of home license administrators, and also work with a second administrator who is 18 or older and has experience working with children.
Child care businesses licensed to operate as centers may serve 13 or more children, with the number of caregivers required dependent on the age and number of the children being served.
When it comes to the type of assistance HYPER provides, Patnode said it depends on the person applying. Some need hands-on assistance, she said, while others may need help coordinating fire marshal inspections and filling out paperwork.
“Every applicant is different, so it kind of changes based on what they need from us,” Patnode said.
It doesn’t help, she said, that a lot of the documents are outdated. She’s considered making informational videos that walk people through the process of becoming a licensed childcare provider.
“I’m hoping over the next year that we can develop a policy template so that we’re not continuing to recreate the wheel,” she said.
Looking ahead, Patnode and Warner said HYPER’s work isn’t done. They’re holding another provider meet up in October and hope that thread, a child care resource and referral organization that helps families find affordable and high-quality child care in Alaska, will join them.
They said the path forward for child care in Alaska needs to be a holistic one. That means paying providers livable wages and seeing the field as a profession.
They’re keeping their eyes on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s child care task force, which his office announced in April, and that is tasked with developing a plan to improve the availability and affordability of quality child care in Alaska.
“It comes down to seeing child care providers as professionals and not just babysitters,” Warner said.
Child care resources for Seward families can be found on HYPER’s website at hyperseward.org.