Childcare co-op pilot program works to address a critical island need

Posted May 31, 2022 at 1:08 pm by

San Juan Island Childcare Cooperative program participants — Contributed photo

Rais­ing an infant or tod­dler is chal­leng­ing for any fam­i­ly try­ing to bal­ance the demands of work life and home life. But take away near­ly half of a com­mu­ni­ty’s child­care capac­i­ty in the span of only a few years and all of a sud­den achiev­ing that bal­ance can feel impossible.

The num­bers are stag­ger­ing – and stacked against San Juan Island’s young work­ing-class fam­i­lies. In a com­mu­ni­ty that requires child­care for 50 or more tod­dlers annu­al­ly, San Juan Island has the capac­i­ty for just sev­en, accord­ing to a 2021 com­mu­ni­ty needs assess­ment cre­at­ed by the Joyce L. Sobel Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter. For infants, the sit­u­a­tion is even worse; the island has had vir­tu­al­ly no pro­fes­sion­al infant care for years.

“In the past few years, our local pro­fes­sion­al child­care capac­i­ty – child­care cen­ters, preschools – has decreased by 40 per­cent,” explains Jen­nifer Arm­strong, the Fam­i­ly Resource Center’s direc­tor. “And even before capac­i­ty start­ed to shrink, child­care for infants and tod­dlers was a huge need.”

With no pub­lic or pri­vate options avail­able to fill those gaps, the Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter, Skag­it Val­ley Col­lege, and a small group of island par­ents have come togeth­er to cre­ate a non­prof­it pilot pro­gram that they hope will cre­ate a sus­tain­able path for­ward for child­care in the San Juan community.

Known as the San Juan Island Child­care Coop­er­a­tive, the pro­gram began ear­li­er this spring and oper­ates two half-day class­es at the Skag­it Val­ley Col­lege satel­lite cam­pus in Fri­day Har­bor – one for tod­dlers in the morn­ing, anoth­er for infants in the after­noon. Under the co-op mod­el, a full-time ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tor helps teach par­ents about child devel­op­ment and behav­ior, and both the edu­ca­tor and one or more par­ents work togeth­er to care for the chil­dren tak­ing part in the pro­gram. For par­ents, this typ­i­cal­ly means a com­mit­ment of one day per week.

Par­ents also active­ly man­age the co-op as mem­bers of its Par­ent Advi­so­ry Board, which is respon­si­ble for admin­is­tra­tive tasks like orga­niz­ing class mate­ri­als, set­ting sched­ules, and ensur­ing that reg­u­la­to­ry require­ments are met. In addi­tion, par­ents must take child safe­ty cours­es relat­ed to CPR, first aid, food han­dling, and manda­to­ry report­ing requirements.

The Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter – which obtained the ini­tial fund­ing for the co-op and pro­vides the pro­gram its non­prof­it sta­tus – hopes that the co-op will address the chal­lenges faced not only by par­ents, but also child­care workers.

“Anoth­er goal of this project is to cre­ate a career-track ear­ly child­hood teach­ing posi­tion, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for intern­ships for stu­dents study­ing child devel­op­ment,” Jen­nifer explains. “A big prob­lem in the child­care indus­try is that com­pen­sa­tion is typ­i­cal­ly very low and few jobs come with ben­e­fits or real sus­tain­abil­i­ty. We have cre­at­ed a full-time lead teacher posi­tion that has a com­pet­i­tive salary and a great ben­e­fits package.”

Like many orga­ni­za­tions try­ing to hire for open jobs on the island, how­ev­er, the Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter has so far strug­gled to fill that full-time edu­ca­tor posi­tion – but they hope to find some­one by the sum­mer and expand pro­gram enroll­ment soon after.

In the mean­time, co-op par­ents like Louisa Brouw­er have tak­en on expand­ed roles to ensure the pilot program’s ear­ly success.

“The par­ents are in charge of every ses­sion with the chil­dren,” Louisa says. “We’ve worked togeth­er to build a basic struc­ture for the class­es and the ses­sions – when cir­cle time hap­pens, when snack time hap­pens, when nap­time hap­pens. The par­ents real­ly deter­mine what the kids get up to. And because there are enough of us involved, we can divide things up pret­ty into small pieces.”

That divi­sion of labor also ben­e­fits the infants and tod­dlers tak­ing part in the pro­gram, who gain expo­sure to a diverse array of caregivers.

“It’s great because our child is get­ting used to being cared for, and trust­ing of, many dif­fer­ent adults, and it shows,” Louisa explains. “He’s much bold­er than he was when the pro­gram start­ed – he can go to an adult that’s not his par­ent and asked to be picked up, or feel okay about hav­ing his dia­per changed by them. It’s also a learn­ing expe­ri­ence because he has to see his par­ent pick up and cud­dle oth­er chil­dren. I was expect­ing that to be a more dif­fi­cult adjust­ment, but actu­al­ly he’s adjust­ed to it pret­ty fast.”

At the same time, the co-op mod­el affords par­ents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain unique insights into their chil­dren – and themselves.

“The fact that you go and work there for a day each week means that you know what’s going on,” Louisa says. “And as a par­ent, learn­ing what the oth­er chil­dren are like, and learn­ing how to take care of them, it’s great. It’s inter­est­ing to see the dif­fer­ences in their per­son­al­i­ties, and it’s inter­est­ing to see them learn from and copy each oth­er. You’re some­times a bit torn when your child needs help, but it’s the oth­er par­ent on duty who has to com­fort them, because your hands are full help­ing some­body else’s child who’s also in distress.”

“I think it’s mak­ing us bet­ter par­ents because of that expo­sure to ideas and dif­fer­ent ways of parenting.”

The San Juan Island Child­care Coop­er­a­tive will con­tin­ue to oper­ate as a pro­gram of the Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter for the fore­see­able future. If it proves sus­tain­able, the goal is to turn the orga­ni­za­tion into an inde­pen­dent nonprofit.

For addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about the pro­gram, con­tact the Fam­i­ly Resource Cen­ter.

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