Spotlight Exclusives

Maine Program Creates Child Care Slots And Good Jobs At The Same Time

Cynthia Murphy Cynthia Murphy, posted on

The COVID-19 pandemic focused the nation’s attention on a number of pre-existing issues for working families, and none more dramatically than daycare. As child care businesses shuttered overnight, families struggled to keep or find employment. Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) aims to help launch more child care businesses while also expanding the number of good jobs in rural communities. Cynthia Murphy, senior program director, Workforce Solutions, at CEI, spoke with Spotlight recently about the Child Care Business Lab. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

To begin Cynthia, could you give us a quick overview of the work CEI is doing?

Community development finance institutions, as you know, have really been developed to help folks in low-income communities and people who are trying to start ventures that many commercial banks think to be risky. We’re here to help make those dreams come true – that’s the colloquial version of what we do.

And how did you get started supporting this child care initiative?

CEI has been working with child care businesses for the forty-plus years we’ve been in existence. In addition to lending money and providing capital to child care and virtually every other kind of business you can imagine would be in the state of Maine, we’ve also provided business advice and technical assistance. A few years ago, I started to notice some alarming trends – and let me give you a quick summary of what I was seeing. Particularly in the more rural areas of the state, I started to see high rates of unemployment, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of part-time and part-year employment and low rates of all parents in a household in the workforce. And when I layered licensed child care slots on top of that, some disturbing patterns began to emerge. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you, but there were very low rates of licensed child care slots where all of those other dynamics were occurring.

So, I started to look a little bit more into what was happening with child care across the state and I saw that over a ten-year period, almost 30 percent of the child care that was based in someone’s home had closed. In the more rural parts of the state, as you might guess, that’s the dominant source of licensed child care. I then set out to do these listening tours and I focused on the seven counties that touched Canada. I listened to child care providers, I listened to people who left the profession and closed, I listened to people who retired and I talked to parents. I talked to ministers and state reps and town officials, I talked to business owners. And what I learned was that there were people who wanted to be in child care, predominately women, who wanted to start a child care business and who had a passion for early childhood education but lacked that business acumen and were really uncertain how to go about starting a child care enterprise. And, what makes it more complicated is that it’s a highly regulated field, for lots of good reasons.

And to just paint a picture of the people who I was talking to in these more rural areas, they were predominately women, 25 to 40 years old, maybe had a couple of community college courses, many were working part-time and most had very little experience with financials at all – maybe they had managed a household budget. The benefit of a highly regulated field is that there can be a recipe developed around this and so I started to think about, can we put together a program that would help people start child care businesses? And that’s what we did – we integrated small business start-up education with child care management and coaching through the licensing process. We made the program cohort-based because one of the things that I heard when I was in people’s houses and in small centers in the more rural parts of the state was that people felt isolated. They felt like they were learning how to run a child care on their own. I was in this woman’s house in Caribou and she had been open for almost a year. And she said, ‘I feel like I’ve been learning what I need to do maybe a couple of minutes before I needed to do something or I was really trying to figure something out after a situation occurred.’

I thought we can develop a program to help these people to start child care businesses and create a good job for themselves and enable more parents to be able to work full-time if they are able to put their children into licensed child care.

And so, this started right before the pandemic?

Isn’t that crazy? My brilliant idea was this cohort-based program and we would run it as a Friday, part-day Saturday schedule and bring everybody to a central place and that way they’ll get that sense of learning together and facing the same challenges. And so, we had one of those and then had to quickly switch to Zoom. But we ran the pilot cohort and finished that completely virtually and now we’re in our first full cohort and it’s a lot better than last year in that we’ve expanded in a couple of ways. We have a cohort focused on the rural part of the state and then we have two other cohorts in Lewiston, an old mill town where in recent years there’s been a major influx of immigrants from a variety of African countries. They have the highest concentration of children in this city than any other part of the state. Almost 20 percent of the population are African immigrants and there is no culturally appropriate child care. There’s a great need for child care where people can bring their children and the food is similar to what they have at home, the style of dress is similar, the same holidays are celebrated, etcetera

How many did you have in your first cohort?

We had eight in the pilot.

And how many now?

We have a total of 28.

And are there particular requirements for applicants? What are you looking for?

That was really tricky, to think through the application process, because I didn’t want to screen people out. If you think about it, I wanted to not have questions that would eliminate people because they didn’t have budgeting experience, for example. So, we try to get at what kind of analogous experience someone might have and try to help people through thinking about the nature of the program. The program is intensive; it runs for six months, there’s a lot of homework, but when you’re done, you are ready to open your doors and you’ve met all the licensing requirements.

We have a web-based application process and we also have a video interview component. Questions have been carefully tuned to make sure that we’re not screening people out who just may not have that experience but have the willingness and aspiration. With the immigrant population, we translated the application into multiple languages and interviews were all done in person.

With your first cohort, and I know COVID is a tremendously complicating factor, are they all up and running now, as much as you can be in this environment?

We had four, 50 percent, who were licensed in the time we looked to achieve. For a variety of reasons, some of them are on a longer timeline – for example, it’s super hard to find a location if you didn’t want to do it in your home. At some times during the pandemic, people weren’t really leaving their homes, so the idea of finding a space, looking at it, getting the fire marshal to come out . . . that was the biggest reason for the delay. Three in the pilot program who struggled to find a location have just found one in the last two months and are on their way to opening – so that will mean that 7 of the 8 from the pilot program will be licensed probably by September.

In the first cohort, in coastal Milbridge, Maine, a daughter of migrant Mexican workers went through the program and is already at capacity with a child care facility. She’s working to include the agricultural community and pays really good wages. And there was another example of a woman who’s a grandmother and was just beside herself that her own daughter couldn’t go to work anymore. That’s what drove her to go through the program – in some places in rural Maine, people are driving incredible distances to drop off their kids. One family was even going into Canada. And the border closed! I think it was really wonderful that Cynthia and CEI started this program pre-pandemic, as this was really a pre-existing condition that now everybody is finally paying attention to.

Are you aware of this being done elsewhere?

We’re haven’t heard of anyone who’s pulled together the elements of the program that we have – the integration of the small business start-up with the child care management and then the coaching through the licensing process and the necessary capital. As I listened to people who were leaving the profession and existing child care providers, they had a passion for kids and early childhood development. They really needed that business piece, but there are so many parts of it that are highly regulated that we would not have been successful if we didn’t integrate.

In the state of Maine, to open a childcare business, you have to have roughly about 25 policies for parents and children – what do you charge, what days do you close, what kind of programming do you have, what kind of food do you serve, etc. And so, by integrating all of this together, while someone is taking their vision and bringing that to life from a business standpoint, they’re also taking all the required courses and then they’re writing the policies. We feel that the integration of these three elements gives the child care provider or business owner a really strong start. We’re not segmenting it all – we’re teaching them that this is a three-legged stool and you have to have all the legs at the same level.

There’s obviously a lot of coordination with the state; is there also state money involved?

There’s no state money involved but the licensors are our partners in a very strong way. They teach in the program and in addition to that they provide guidance every step of the way. I’ll give you an example: working with the immigrant population in Lewiston, there are a number of hurdles that these folks have to overcome to become licensed. In addition to the normal things you’d have to do to start child care, they have to have a high school equivalency degree and they also need to write their policies, both of which can be difficult given the language barriers. So, I told the licensors, I’m struggling with this and I have a couple of ideas. What if we allow them to record and then we translate it so you can read the policies? The licensors have been really flexible in trying to work with us because they see the need for licensed child care.

And the seed funding for this, while it didn’t come from the state, was a federal grant for five years.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided the initial funding and then a private philanthropy in Maine stepped forward and asked us to expand in several important ways.

In the pilot group, 48 percent of the parents who have children enrolled in the businesses we helped to start indicated that they were able to start a new full-time job as a result of being able to have their children in a high-quality child care environment. As the year goes on, we’ll get more data, but we feel like we’re on the cusp of having a good story to tell. And we think the Child Care Business Lab model is scalable and replicable.

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