Opinion

More funding is needed for the Island’s youngest residents

Holden Schmidt and his nanny Annnie Sahinovic built a tower at Vashon Youth & Family Services’ Playspace, which hosts playgroups for kids birth to 5. - File photo
Holden Schmidt and his nanny Annnie Sahinovic built a tower at Vashon Youth & Family Services’ Playspace, which hosts playgroups for kids birth to 5.
— image credit: File photo

Early Education

Last week my wife and I experienced a parental rite of passage — our daughter climbed on board a school bus for the first time. We were worried that she would get cold feet at the last moment — but no, off she went, happily heading toward her first day of school.

We felt happy, proud, scared and a sense of loss all at the same time. All in all, as is often the case, our daughter did a better job of handling the emotions of this event than we did.

I also had a different feeling, however: relief. For the past six years our family — which consists of two working parents — has struggled mightily to find suitable child care on the Island.

We have used an excellent in-home child care, which closed, created child care cooperatives, hired a live-in nanny and used flexible work situations to cover our needs. Put another way, the care of our child during the first years of her life has been a period of incredible stress for us.

And how ironic that is — since research, increasingly, underscores the critical importance of a child’s first few years of life.

The data demonstrate a direct correlation between a child’s experiences in her first five years and a host of issues: the need for special education services, drug and alcohol use, involvement in the criminal justice or social services systems or, conversely, resiliency, problem-solving skills and academic success.

And for those who like to talk in terms of return on investment, there is plenty of supporting data as well.

One longitudinal study of Head Start over a 30-year span indicated that for every dollar spent on Head Start there was a savings of $16 dollars in health care, social services and involvement in the justice system.

Yet in spite of these statistics, our nation, state, county and Island invest pennies on the dollar in these critical years of a child’s life.

Once a child is 5, our taxes provide somewhere around $7,000 annually per child for her care and education. This does not include extra funds received from other tax sources for the capital needs of our schools, services for at-risk children or other prevention dollars. Nor does it include the amazing array of private opportunities that are organized for our children.

On Vashon they include the lacrosse team, Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, Development of Island Teens, Vashon Youth Council, Vashon Park District programs, Vashon Allied Arts programs — the list goes on and on.

I think it is safe to say that at least $10,000 to $15,000 per year is being spent on the nurturing and care of school-aged children in this Island from public funds. This is still probably not close to enough.

Let’s compare that with the birth-to-5 population. Our Island has a public preschool that serves maybe 7 percent of the overall birth-to-5 population. This program gets a certain amount of public dollars for children with special needs. However, the remainder of the program is fee-for-services.

The public health nurse is available to families on WIC up to the age of 1 — about 10 to 20 families on Vashon annually.

Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) receives about $60,000 per year in competitive King County grants for this age group.

Maybe, just maybe, this brings the Island’s total publicly funded budget for birth-to-5 programs to about $500,000. Based on a population of 500 children in this age group, this brings the total public funding on each child to a whopping $1,000!

As I send my daughter off to school I cannot help but wonder if I have given her the great start that research indicates is so critical to her success.

I also cannot help but reflect upon our difficult experience of accessing resources for her care and nurturing during those years. I certainly did not start out as an expert parent and certainly am still not an expert in child development!

What happens to those children who are not in families who can afford to participate in a child care cooperative or one of the Island’s wonderful preschools?

The lack of virtually any full-time care on Vashon — especially in the birth-to-2 age group — or affordable early learning services on Vashon is at a crisis.

The rural and isolated nature of our Island is why many chose to live here, but it’s really not a benefit at all to a new parent who is struggling in his or her new role.

I see our community come together to benefit our school-aged children, whether it is through the PTSA, Partners in Education, voting for school levies or giving to scholarship funds. It makes me proud to live here. But as a community, we are largely leaving to chance the experience of the children up to the age of 5 years old.

If a parent has the resources, knowledge, skills and emotional capacity, her child will be more likely to succeed. If not, however, there are very few resources available to her to get the additional support needed to help her child thrive.

VYFS, Island preschools, the school district and parents, among others, have been talking about this issue in the past several years and have created the Vashon Early Learning Coalition to address it.

Its strategic plan calls for the establishment of an early learning center, an early learning scholarship fund and a vastly improved communications infrastructure to help parents and their young children get the support and information they need to give their children that great start in life. My hope is that Vashon responds and helps the Early Learning Coalition reach its goals.

Research indicates that this will ultimately make the resources available to school-aged youth go further and improve the lives of all Vashon children and youth.

— Sam Collins is the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services. Those interested in discussing this issue with him can reach him at scollins@vyfs.org

or 463-5511.

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