For many families, child care is just another budget expense, not unlike food and utilities. But for others, like Christina Stevenson, a single mother who works full time, child care for her 3-year-old daughter was a luxury; having it meant there was no money left for food or utilities.
It also meant, to earn a living, Stevenson would have to rely on family to care for her daughter.
"I kind of had to move her around with family members," she said.
Stevenson said that when her daughter was 1, she applied for subsidized child care, but never heard back. She isn't alone, Stevenson, like 3,200 other families (totaling nearly 4,100 children) in Contra Costa County, is on an eligibility waiting list for subsidized child care.
"In California, a family of three must earn less than $3,722 (monthly) in order to be considered eligible for a state subsidy," said Contra Costa Child Care Council Deputy Director Ronda Garcia. "However, because there is such a high demand, few families who earn more than $1,960 receive either Head Start or subsidized child care."
But thanks to First 5 Contra Costa's new pilot preschool scholarship program, Preschool Makes a Difference, Stevenson's daughter and 20 other disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, have been taken off that waiting list and have begun attending preschool for the first time.
"This is First 5 funding from the California First 5 Commission, which has been supporting school readiness
In what may be the first of many pilot preschool scholarship programs in the county, First 5 CC targeted the 94509 ZIP code area of Antioch and the 94565 ZIP code area of Pittsburg, areas its research showed were in high need of subsidized child care, when looking to award its first 21 scholarships.
The two-year $400,000 pilot program was instituted to ensure that low-income children enter kindergarten ready to do their best. To be considered for the program, families had to earn too much to qualify for subsidized child care, but too little to afford quality preschool. First 5 CC estimates that it costs approximately $8,700 a year for a full-time preschooler to attend a quality child care center in Contra Costa.
Scholarships are only used at approved licensed child care programs selected by First 5 CC through a rigorous screening and assessment process to ensure high-quality practices and well-trained staff. Parents select sites from this approved list of 25 child care centers and may use scholarships to cover full-day or part-day preschool. Families also pay a fee directly to their provider between $1.60 and $3 per day depending on their income.
"I think it's important to realize, even though it seems like it's a small number of kids that get the scholarships, is even if there is one (scholarship) kid at a child-care center, all the kids at that site will potentially benefit from the improvements in quality and training and the other activities that the site participates in," Casey said. "So well over a hundred kids could be affected in the pilot."
Studies show that students who start school behind tend to stay behind. High-quality prekindergarten helps close the school-readiness gap before it becomes the achievement gap. Children who attend high-quality programs are more likely to perform better on standardized reading and math tests and to graduate from high school. They're less likely to be placed in special education or held back a grade.
Every dollar we spend now to get kids into programs like this will save $7 to $15 down the road by saving government spending on education, the criminal justice system and public assistance, and increasing tax revenues, Casey said.
"Our hopes for this program are to demonstrate that children who otherwise may not have attended high-quality child care programs will arrive at school fully prepared to learn. And that the families of those children will have the information they need to support and guide their children throughout their lives," Garcia said.
"Before this program, I couldn't afford day care," Stevenson said. "It's kind of great that this came along." In the month that Stevenson's daughter has attended the Preschool Makes a Difference program, she has noticed a significant difference in her daughter's counting abilities, her knowledge of colors, her waiting (patience) skills and knowing her boundaries.
"The way she gets along with kids, she is more sharing," Stevenson said. "There has been a big amount of difference in a short time."
For more information about First 5 Contra Costa, log onto www.firstfivecc.org.