Jennifer Colwell’s now-toddler-aged son, Miles, hadn’t been born yet when Colwell and her husband started getting on waitlists for child care centers.
In fact, Colwell says, "we got on a number of waitlists while we were pregnant and still to this day have not heard back from any of them."
The Colwells, who live in Superior Township, were eventually able to find Miles a spot in a center near Colwell’s work. But their difficult journey still isn't over, as they've continued to struggle with the effects of child care staffing issues and costs. And they're just two of many Washtenaw County parents who have struggled to find child care in recent years. But a new cross-disciplinary group of local business owners, families, child care providers, and civic organizations is working to alleviate some of the challenges the Colwells and other local families have faced.
Jennifer Colwell and her son Miles.
That group, the Livingston and Washtenaw Counties Child Care Coalition
, was recently convened by business incubator Ann Arbor SPARK
. Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff at SPARK, says the coalition seeks to address child care issues in Livingston and Washtenaw counties through connection and partnership among its member organizations. He says the coalition is currently in a "data-gathering phase."
"We have a platform where we can try and convene folks that may not know each other but could be connected through economic development work," Santer says. He adds that SPARK's unique position as an intermediary between the public and private sectors will help it facilitate relationships between organizations in both sectors.
In June, coalition members began the process of assessing regional needs and researching municipal policies. They’ll start developing a regional action plan between October 2023 and January 2024, which they will implement between January and June 2024.
Apple Playschools Executive Director Etta Heisler.
"I'm interested in participating in the coalition because I think that the solution to problems that impact everybody is a solution that involves everybody in its creation," says coalition member Etta Heisler, who is also executive director at Ann Arbor-based Apple Playschools
That sentiment is echoed by coalition member Cheranissa Williams, who is also economic opportunity manager for Washtenaw County.
"As a society, [this] isn't a problem for just the child care industry or the parents or the students," Williams says. "It's for all of the folks that are involved. It's for the businesses, it's for the neighbors, it's for everyone."
At some point, Williams adds, "my problem will undoubtedly become your problem and yours mine."
The challenges ahead for the coalition are myriad. According to Heisler, it isn’t unusual for Apple Playschools to have 300 families on its waitlist at any given time.
"That’s the standard," she says. "I had a family two weeks ago who called me crying. They've been on our waitlist for over a year, and they’re desperate to have a spot."
It’s clear that Colwell’s experience with waitlists is all too common. And yet, in the child care world, waitlists are just the tip of the iceberg. When the Colwells first enrolled Miles at the center (whose name Colwell declined to share to protect the site’s identity), Colwell was disappointed by the quality of service they received.
"There was really poor and conflicting communication, and unprofessional communication, for some time, and a lot of staff turnover," Colwell says. "I didn't typically remember who any of the teachers were in the classroom on any given day. … The staff-to-child ratios were off."
Manzanitas Spanish Immersion Playschool in Ann Arbor.
Even more worryingly, Colwell received a note one day informing her that Miles, who has food-related allergies and was not supposed to be fed solid foods by anyone other than his parents, had been given a morning snack.
Heisler says these and other problems in child care — including staff turnover, training, morale, burnout, sustainable wages, and others — radiate out from one core issue.
"The biggest challenge for us is that there is a lack of resources, especially financial resources, being invested in early childhood education," Heisler says.
Santer echoes Heisler's sentiment.
"It’s already extraordinarily expensive for families to be able to [pay for child care], yet despite that expense, it's also not enough to be able to get through the labor market challenges that we're seeing [from the] child care [providers’] side," he says.
As a result, child care providers are struggling to pay their staff livable wages. A report
last year by the nonpartisan policy institute American Progress found that full-time child care staff in America are paid $14.01 per hour on average — less than half the amount that kindergarten teachers make. MIT’s Living Wage calculator
estimates that a single adult living in Washtenaw County without any children must make $18.87 per hour to afford living expenses.
At Apple Playschools, most staff are paid between $15 and $20 per hour. Heisler readily admits that's a problem, asserting that "the market is broken around child care."
"Everyone who's working is looking for balance between work and the whole rest of their lives," Heisler says. "It's really hard to figure out how to do that when what you do is provide a service that families need all the time."
Heisler doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. She says staffing represents 80-90% of Apple Playschools’ costs, and she’s reluctant to raise tuition when it’s already unaffordable for so many.
Under the current system, Heisler adds, "kids lose for sure. Families lose—absolutely. But what's becoming more and more clear to me, the more I learn about how early childhood education and care functions in our community and in our economy, is that actually, all of us are losing. All of us are losing every day that children and families don't have access to this essential service."
The pace of trust
Colwell is quick to point out that communication and quality of care have improved dramatically at Miles' child care center over time. Miles and his parents are both happy with the center now. But Colwell still isn’t sure she'll be able to keep Miles enrolled. An outpatient occupational therapist at the University of Michigan (U-M) Hospital as well as an adjunct lecturer at U-M Flint, Colwell says she spends nearly her entire salary paying for Miles' care — which is only part-time.
"We’ve done the math," Colwell says, on whether to stay home with Miles or keep working. At first, the decision to stay home seemed simple.
"But then you get all the nuances of benefits and health insurance costs, and my career is one that I can't necessarily pick back up if I leave," she adds.
For now, at least, Colwell and her family will try to stick it out. And in the meantime, coalition members are working to make that easier for the Colwells and others like them. Williams agrees with Heisler's assertion that child care challenges are not just parents' problems. If parents can't get child care, they can't go to work, and society suffers more broadly as a result.
Jennifer Colwell and her son Miles.
"It's a domino effect," she says. "And as much as we'd like to think that we're disconnected from one another, we need one another. We're connected."
Like Santer, Williams wants to see child care providers and families sitting down at the same table to discuss solutions.
"I think with any relationship — and child care provider to parent is a relationship — making sure people are open, honest, and transparent about what's going on at both ends [is crucial]," she says.
Both parents and providers, Williams adds, will need to be open about their limitations and needs.
"Change only happens at the pace of trust, which means we have to actually know each other and know about each other and be willing to work through disagreement with each other in order to find solutions," Heisler says. "So I think that the regional planning coalition is an essential first step."
Manzanitas Spanish Immersion Playschool in Ann Arbor.
Heisler says she believes any solution the coalition advances needs to center respect for children first.
"If we are centering the people who are most vulnerable, then we're always going to think about all of the other folks that need support, too," she says.
Heisler, like Williams and Santer, is hopeful about the SPARK coalition but also practical about the need for long-term cooperation.
"Lasting solutions to these issues are going to require not just coalition members, but every single one of the neighbors of those coalition members, all of the employers of those coalition members, and the employers who have buildings next door to those employers," she says. "Every single elected official or representative of our communities is going to have to take action to address this."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
All photos by Doug Coombe.