Leah Spangler, CEO of The Learning Lamp, is an advocate for early childhood education, especially due to the benefits such programs provide.
“Having access to quality child care and preschool ensures that children build the foundational skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond,” she said. “That includes things like pre-reading and math skills and social-emotional development.”
However, Pennsylvania lacks a sufficient number of programs to match the need, data show. According to advocacy group Start Strong PA, just 42% of the nearly 7,000 providers throughout the commonwealth meet the state’s standards for a high-quality program.
In Pennsylvania, child care organizations are graded using the Keystone STARS (standards, training/professional development, assistance, resources and supports) system, which has been around since 2002.
Through this voluntary system, the facilities are provided with one to four stars, which represent a program’s quality (four being the best rating) based on how safe and respectful the environment is and if the children are learning important lessons or skills “to support their current and future successes in school and in life,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
In Cambria County, there are 26 facilities with one star, 22 with two, four with three and 13 with four, state records show. Somerset County has fewer facilities with high ratings, logging 12 organizations with one STAR, 13 with two and two with four.
Across the region, The Learning Lamp has several facilities with three or four STAR ratings.
‘A difficult decision’
Steve Doster, Pennsylvania state director for the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, said “From birth to age 5, young children’s brains make millions of neural connections every second – forming brain architecture for life. At no other time in a human’s life will the brain develop at this remarkable speed or with such intricacy. This is the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior and health depend.”
Doster is an advocate for programs such as pre-kindergarten, which typically works with children 3 to 4 years of age.
Pennsylvania has a free initiative called Pre-K Counts for income-eligible families.
“High quality pre-k programs capitalize on this most rapid period of brain development and help ensure that all kids are ready to succeed,” Doster said. “Long-term studies show that kids who participated in high quality pre-k programs are more likely to graduate high school and successfully transition to college, career or the workforce. They are also less likely to engage in antisocial behaviors that may lead to crime or depend on social services as adults.”
He pointed to a recent study by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill that supports the concept that Pennsylvania’s investment in pre-k “is paying dividends” for those fortunate enough to access it through the state’s program.
“In language and math skills, the study showed that these kids outperformed their kindergarten peers who did not enjoy access – an advantage that equated to four to five months of learning gains, which is a substantial difference in development at that age,” he said.
In Cambria County, 59% of eligible children don’t have access to high-quality pre-k programs, according to 2020 data from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. The organization also reports that in Somerset County 57% of eligible children are lacking access to the same programs.
“Parents need to be able to access affordable, quality child care so they can go to work and support their families,” Spangler said. “If parents cannot find child care, they are forced to make a difficult decision – exit the workforce or settle for unreliable or low-quality care.”
Jobs and child care
She also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on those facilities. Last year, most agencies were shut down for months because of the coronavirus, which left centers and parents in a bind.
Spangler said prior to the virus affecting Cambria and Somerset counties, there weren’t enough spots for children, and several more centers were lost during the pandemic.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that during the pandemic period, 12 agencies closed in Cambria, three in Somerset and seven opened in Cambria while three opened in Somerset.
Spangler views child care as a workforce issue and addressed the possibility that employers could come together to invest in that type of infrastructure in their communities. She provided the example of the Sheetz campus in Claysburg, Bedford County, which provides an onsite care center.
“When care is more available and affordable, more people can go to work and more people will be retained in their jobs,” she said.