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Addressing A Growing Need For Child Care, Early Education

By Jenny Callison, posted Sep 1, 2023
Leslie King, director of Spark Academy, stands inside the Spark school building that is currently under construction in Wilmington to address the need for child care and early education. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
It’s not news that the demand for high-quality, affordable child care exceeds the supply. 

In July of this year, the White House released data showing that nearly 60% of children under age 6 in the United States spend time in nonparental care on a regular basis. The same report stated that, in 2019, almost 75% of center-based providers had more requests than capacity, and more than 75% of households that searched for care had a hard time finding the quality and type of care that met their needs and their budget.

What is news is that two local entities are finding ways to address the problem, especially focusing on households with limited means to pay for child care.

Beacon Education, the Wilmington-based nonprofit that in 2016 opened Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW Academy), is launching Spark Academy, the first of what it hopes will be five early childhood education centers in the area for youngsters from six weeks old through pre-kindergarten. Spark Academy will open in October with an initial enrollment of up to 120.

“Our model is a mixed-income model,” Beacon CEO Todd Godby said. “We are targeting for 50% of our population to be full-pay and 50% to be on some form of scholarship, in pursuit of equal access to high-quality early childhood education.”

The goal, he added, is that all children entering kindergarten from Spark Academy will be equally well-prepared for school. Beacon’s motivation for creating the academy was data showing that’s not currently the case. 

“The beginning was the realization at GLOW that our Black and brown students were coming in significantly behind our white students,” Godby continued. “That [observation] was later verified by a ProPublica study in 2020: Black and brown students … sixth-graders were 3.2 years behind whites in math and reading. As we began to examine that core of our mission, we asked, ‘How do we make a difference?’ We decided we have to start earlier.”

Early education professional Leslie King is the director of Spark Academy. She said that part of Spark’s comprehensive curriculum is something called core essentials. These are qualities and skills valued in friends and coworkers, she said; they will be instilled in Spark students.

“Core essentials are relate, regulate, communicate, think and move,” she said, adding that these qualities allow people to navigate their social setting and to develop and use gross motor and fine motor skills. “We’ll have activities each day to build these essentials in children as well as helping them learn to be academically prepared when they transition to their next school.”

Jane Morrow, executive director of Smart Start of New Hanover County, and her colleagues advised Beacon officials as they designed the new early childhood center.

“Our children need to have quality experiences,” Morrow said. “When you project 20 years out into the future, we want employees with soft skills. Early childhood is when those skills develop.”

Smart Start operates like a school system’s central office, providing ongoing technical assistance and other forms of support to all licensed child care programs in the county, including Head Start and North Carolina pre-K programs. 

“We help with anything from developing a manual for parents to helping with individual kids with issues. We offer training and continuing education hours,” Morrow said.

The nonprofit also monitors the details of supply and demand.

“We worked with Beacon Education to show them what the overall landscape is like: where there is a dearth of slots,” Morrow said. “Some programs have waiting lists over a year long. Some families qualify for subsidies and have vouchers but can’t find child care.”

High-quality child care is important for children, but it has other benefits, she added.

“It’s important for parents because it allows them to work or go to school. It’s important for businesses, so they can find reliable employees. Child care is part of the community infrastructure; part of economic development,” she said.

Officials at Cape Fear Community College understand the importance of reliable child care to their constituency: students. In August, the college opened a free drop-in child care center for its students to use as a backup resource.

“We want them to have a primary source of care for their children, but sometimes something happens, and they need to get to class,” CFCC President Jim Morton said. “We have an enrollment of 23,000, and their average age is 25 or 26. A lot of them have children. We are trying to improve our student retention and found that a barrier for many was the lack of backup child care.”

Last year, the college applied to the New Hanover Community Endowment and received $250,000 to operate the drop-in center; it also received financial support from Martin Meyerson and his wife. The funding allowed CFCC to open the center on a pilot basis right away in a temporary space that has room for 20 youngsters at any one time.

“Long-term, once we have renovated the building we purchased on North Third Street, we’ll have a larger space,” Morton said. “But this [pilot] lets us gauge how much space we’ll need and how much demand there is.”
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