A Crisis of Care: Testing a new model of childcare in Northport

Childcare has two business models. 

A childcare center can take on more children and hire more staff but they’re expensive to run, and they face more state regulations.

Home care providers are more affordable to run, with fewer regulations, but they can only handle so many children.

But what if they were combined, in effort to boost capacity at an affordable price for parents that benefits the provider?

Meet the "microcenter," a hybrid form of childcare up and running right now in Leelanau County.

It takes the rules of home-based care and combines it with the scale of a childcare facility.

Northport resident Amelia Kristiansen is the first to open in the area. Kristiansen, like most care providers, is passionate about the work.

“Every day is something I look forward to ... because one might start walking, or might say their first word," she said. "And to be able to record that and show parents and tell parents about what their child is learning is just a very — I don't have words — just very exciting. And I'm very thankful to be able to do this.”

Patricia Soutas-Little and Amelia Kristiansen.

Kristiansen has worked at childcares facilities, private nannying and babysitting since she was 13 years old.

Ten years later, she now heads Little Acorn Childcare.

It’s this vast open concept building with giant play areas, a fully equipped kitchen and massive windows.

Outside is a cozy backyard with play equipment and a large gazebo set against a dense tree line.

Kristiansen took over the center in July but has known the place longer. She attended Little Acorn when she was little.

“And so did my husband," she said. "So, it’s a very special place to us. The outside hasn’t changed much."

But conceptually, it has changed. Kristiansen was introduced to the idea of "microcenters" while working as a consultant and counselor with Parenting Communities of Leelanau County.

That's when she connected with Patricia Soutas-Little, who chairs the Early Childhood Development Commission in Leelanau County.

Soutas-Little and others thought about trying out the microcenter approach. She said Leelanau County is the only county in Michigan testing out this experimental model of care.

One of the many play areas inside Little Acorn Childcare.

“This is one way you can have that home-based type program, which is less expensive to run, and which means it’s better for families, but you can do it in a facility outside of home," she said. "So it’s a tool for building capacity and childcare.”

Opening a full-scale facility takes a lot of inspections and has more rules compared to home care programs. It also requires more staff.

Home based programs are limited to a maximum of 12 children.

"So that’s what will govern Amelia," she said. "To be outside of a home she had to have her facility meet the center-based regulations.”

In other words, she has to stick to the limit of 12 children but doesn’t have to operate the business out of her home.

Kristiansen partnered with the Village of Northport and the public schools to find a building, leasing Little Acorn Child Care for $1 a month.

The Leelanau Township Community Foundation also agreed to cover her operational costs for three years.

A start-up grant from a statewide nonprofit called the Early Childhood Investment Corporation helped with early costs, like buying furniture, toys and more for the center.

Kristiansen charges between $68 and $72 per day depending on the age. It’s more expensive for kids under 18 months because they need more attention. There's also more demand for care for those younger children, not just in Leelanau County but across the state.

Little Acorn is a bit cheaper for the youngest children than some other nearby centers. But for the most part, costs here still fall in line with some of the local, state and national averages for full-time childcare.

“I guess what I’m saying is the whole mindset has to change in terms of the purpose and function of these businesses that are charged with our greatest commodity," Soutas-Little said. "But it is a business and if it isn’t run as a business, it’s not going to be a business for very long. That’s part of what you’re seeing across not just Michigan, but the country.”
Soutas-Little says communities, including businesses, need to see childcare as a societal need so that enough people band together to help make it possible.

“With community support, just raising enough to cover the costs of licensure and some of the basic things which I think most communities can do," she said. "But you do need the business buy-in.”

Like any other kind of care provider, Amelia Kristiansen said she is struggling to hire help. Her parents volunteer but they’re already certified.

People are interested, but the requirements to get license a to care for kids is a lengthy process.

Kristiansen said it starts with background checks, CPR training, "and fingerprints. It's just so extensive that when people come in and find out about this extensive training, they're like, 'I don't know, like, I need to work now.'"

Soutas-Little says those requirements are in place for the safety of the child, but she would like to see more flexibility on other things — like the ratio of children to adults.

“Many times providers are finding that parents may have children that they have room for but they don’t fit into the slots. So it’s a matter of trying to tweak the slots a little bit," Soutas-Little said. "Part of that is concern, can one person care for four children in that age range?"

And Soutas-Little says that’s the problem. Studies show the greatest need for care is for kids age zero to 18.

Kristiansen said there is no provider nearby to care for that age group. And she says having her parents available to help out has been enormously helpful.
"I don't know that I would be able to do it by myself — caring for six children in this age range," she said.

But that’s why the rules are in place. And why Soutas-Little wants to examine that flexibility to make it easier to bring in volunteers.

Barriers to certification might be tricky to solve, but Soutas-Little and Kristiansen believe that microcenters could be the future for childcare.

And how that model translates to other communities remains to be seen. Again, Little Acorn Childcare is the first microcenter to open in Northport. It’s in a trial period to see if it will work.

But Kristiansen is relieved to have her doors open with kids running around.

“It’s a privilege to care for these children, to feel the relief in the parents' voices," she said. "(I see) their stance when it’s drop off time and there’s no crying and they just come in and start playing and the parents are like 'Wait, I’m having a harder time than you are! Okay we’ll go now.’"

Soutas-Little says there’s already been some interest in their hybrid model of care elsewhere in the region.

And three more microcenters will open over the next year in Northport.

Tyler Thompson is a reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.
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