Three-year-old Aubreaune stands behind an easel showing off her painting of a T-Rex.
“It’s green and purple," she says. "It eats people. Roar!”
She’s among a group of preschool-aged kids and childcare providers who gathered at the Homewood Early Learning Hub for play time on a recent Tuesday. Besides activities for the kids, providers and families use the center to find resources, and share best practices.
One of those providers is Rhonda Owens, who runs the Righteous Beginnings Learning Center in Homewood. Her center watches over 14 children, ages one to 12 years old. Owens says she depends on the state to help pay for her services.
“I have like three private pays, but most of my kids come through subsidy,” she said.
Pennsylvania subsidizes the cost of childcare for families, who make 200 percent or less of the federal poverty income rate, through the Child Care Works program. But Owens said she and others are always trying to find ways to save money. At the Hub, which is run as a partnership between the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC, and the Homewood Children's Village, she and other providers are able to pool their resources.
“Trainings," she said. "Getting to know each provider that’s in the area. And when we want different items or something, we collaborate and buy the items in bulk because it’s cheaper.”
Owens’ job stretches the meaning of the word “caretaker.” In addition to keeping a watchful eye over her children’s education, nutrition and emotional well being, she's also a business owner who tries to find the time and money for professional development. But the bottom line is clear: To Owens, it’s all about the kids.
“If you have a passion for the kids, you just do it," she said. "It’s something that’s instilled in you.”
Around 2,500 kids in Pennsylvania are currently on the waiting list for Child Care Works, and about 118,000 children use the subsidy. PAEYC Executive Director Michelle Figlar said funding for pre-K programs comes from the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Education.
In the current budget, the amount of money for subsidies and professional development was $309 million. Pre-K counts, Head Start, and accountability block grants received $226 million.
So is it enough?
“No, absolutely not," Figlar said. "We’re only serving about a third of the eligible children here in Pennsylvania.”
Even if funding goals were met, Figlar said they still need higher quality providers. The state has a voluntary accreditation program called Keystone STARS, but the quality rating system entails education, and staff training and costs money that many providers don’t have.
Figlar said the lack of professionalization takes a toll on the public’s perception. She said people likely have one image of a day care teacher, but a different image entirely of an elementary school teacher.
"We haven’t been able to raise the profile of the person who does this work to a place to get the community and elected officials to say these folks are part of the continuum too that helps our children get to high school graduation, to a college degree,” she said.
Figlar said if kids are going to do well school, pre-K has to be part of the conversation.
“It just has to be," she said. "We’re not making our investments there. There are many families that still have to choose. Do I choose pre-K or do I choose a car payment? Pre-K is expensive, it can be up to a thousand dollars a month. That’s a lot of money.”
Figlar said in order for children to have the best chance of succeeding as adults, pre-K programs need to be fully funded. Back at the Homewood Early Learning Hub, community outreach specialist Cynthia Battle sits at the front of the room warming up the group for story time, and the future.
“I’m going to college," she calls out before story time, "or trade school!”