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At a town hall meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11, child care providers, elected officials, school staff and parents shared some of their biggest concerns for the future of child care in Stevens County. Representatives with a new partnership, Greater Than Minnesota, will include this information in a community action plan to help improve child care availability and quality in the area. (Sue Dieter/Sun Tribune)

Community brainstorms ways to improve regional child care options

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MORRIS – There are nearly 600 children under the age of five in Stevens County, but less than 500 licensed child care spaces in the county. Nearly 70 percent of families with children under five have two working parents, and 21 percent of those families live in poverty.

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These statistics, shared at a town hall meeting on child care challenges held this week, indicate just a few of the issues families in the area face when looking for quality child care options in the region.

The town hall meeting was organized by Greater Than Minnesota, a partnership between First Children’s Finance, a national nonprofit headquartered in Minnesota that focuses on increasing the availability and affordability of quality child care options, and the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations. 

The purpose of the town hall meeting, one of several happening across the state, is to bring together child care providers, elected officials, school staff members and parents to help develop a community solution action plan that will identify local child care and education trends, challenges and solutions.

After developing the action plan, staff with Greater Than MN will be back in the community to discuss child care issues with business leaders and develop optional learning cohorts for child care providers, said Heidi Hagel Braid, Minnesota director of First Children’s Finance.

“We’ll be back and we have resources and all kinds of things that we’re bringing to the table,” she said. “We hope that your community is stronger as a result of being in this project and that the child care businesses in your community are stronger and vital and sustainable.”

One of the premises of the project is that adequate, high quality child care is an important part of a strong regional economy.

Hagel Braid argued that child care fills three key economic roles: it is an economic sector in itself with facilities and employees; it is a public good that allows parents to work; and it helps prepare children for school and to be future contributors to the local economy.

“Child care is an economic multiplier – for every dollar that is spent on child care, it generates income in your community,” said Hagel Braid. “If we have strong child care businesses, they are more likely to be in existence for long term, providing a continuity of care for children.”

Attendees at the town hall meeting on Tuesday helped identify a range of trends and challenges related to child care and early education including lack of available infant care, regulations that adversely affect in-home providers, few options for families that work outside normal business hours, increased demands for early education, and lack of training for local providers.

To collect data for the community action plan, Greater Than MN will also be working with staff at the University of Minnesota, Morris’ Center for Small Towns to conduct a survey of west central Minnesota parents to find out their perceptions on child care in the region.

The survey can be found online at www.morris.umn.edu/cst/GreaterThanMNChildCareSurvey and will be open for responses from parents until Friday, Feb. 28.

Hagel Braid said the community action plan will likely be completed within a month. More information about the project can be found at www.greaterthanmn.org.

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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