By Janice Deguchi
Executive director, Neighborhood House
The first five years of life are critical to a child’s development. Children go from being immobile, spending most of their time sleeping, eating, peeing and pooping into miniature people that can walk, talk, play, and share; critical life skills. They can’t do this alone. Stable families and caring early learning professionals help children develop by ensuring they feel safe, responding to their needs, creating an environment for exploration and play, and providing positive interactions.
Washington families are struggling to find and keep this kind of quality early care and education. For immigrant families with language barriers, and for people with limited income, it is even harder. The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) which provides free, culturally responsive pre-school, health, and family support services to over 13,000 low income families, has a long waiting list. The Working Connections Child Care Program (WCCC), which provides 130,000 families childcare vouchers they can use at any licensed center, reimburses providers at such a low rate, many quality early learning programs do not participate or limit the number of WCCC children they accept. While Washington State has expanded ECEAP and done severalstudies demonstrating the importance and need for early learning investment, many families still do not have access to high quality early learning opportunities.
In response, several visionary lawmakers have sponsored bills in Washington’s Legislature to re-imagine our current early learning system and substantially increase investment in a child’s earliest years. This investment is long overdue. Like many other industries, the early learning field is experiencing a workforce crisis. Unlike other industries, however, our lack of consistency in the classroom hurts our future; hurts children like Emily (name changed to protect their privacy).
Emily was three years old when she entered Neighborhood House’sECEAP classroom. She had undiagnosed developmental and speech delays. It took a full year for our teacher to build enough trust with Emily’s mother, a single parent and immigrant, for her to agree to a development screening. This screening would give Emily access to speech therapy and specialized services. She was scheduled to haveher screening this fall. Unfortunately, Emily’s teacher left Neighborhood House for a higher paying job as an administrative assistant at a marketing firm. Emily started the school year with all new teachers and ended up leaving our program within the first few weeks. We are unsure if she ever got the early intervention services she needs.
At Neighborhood House, preschool teachers earn $39,000 on average, still higher than other programs in the area. The average kindergarten teacher in the Seattle Public Schools earns $63,000. This fall, we had 27 vacancies and had to postpone the start of school twice because we didn’t have qualified applicants. Right now, we still have 10 vacancies. Neighborhood House is not alone. The field of early learning is facing a state-wide staffing crisis that is getting worse. One of the proposals in the Legislature funds the career and wage ladder to help ease this crisis with higher pay and professional development.
It can take many months before a child with special needs like Emily is screened, referred, assessed, an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is written and services are provided. Once a child is qualified for services, a therapist visits a classroom once or twice a week. The early learning bills create a complex needs fund, a first step in ensuring adequate classroom staffing so that all children are safe and receive the support and instruction they need and deserve.
The early learning bills will also increase the number of eligible families that qualify for ECEAP, opening more doors for children from hard-working families struggling to make ends meet. ECEAP helps children develop the social/emotional skills they need to navigate a kindergarten classroom, including providing critical care and support services for children with developmental delays or who have experienced trauma. ECEAP also works with families to connect them to resources so they can provide a stable home. These services are lifechanging for Washington children and families.
At Neighborhood House, we’re in the business of relationships. We let Emily down because we could not keep a trusted teacher in this field. We must act now to invest in Washington’s future. Please join me in supporting early learning investments by calling or writing your legislators today.
About Janice Deguchi and Neighborhood House:
Janice Deguchi is the Executive Director of Neighborhood House which helps people in Seattle and King County lead healthier lives, succeed in school and access economic opportunity. Neighborhood House offers early learning, employment services, citizenship classes, resources for seniors and disabled people, youth development, housing stability, and health outreach programs to over 15,000 people each year.