Wednesday, March 21 , 2018, 11:13 pm | Overcast 58º


Child-Care Forum to Shine Light on Santa Barbara County Shortage

First 5 Santa Barbara County brings issue to light during Monday night event

A chart illustrates that a lot of brain development occurs before a child reaches kindergarten, emphasizing the need for pre-school and quality child car.
A chart illustrates that a lot of brain development occurs before a child reaches kindergarten, emphasizing the need for pre-school and quality child car. (Contributed)

If parents in Santa Barbara County want to get their newborns into a quality child-care program, they should get their names on a waiting list long before they’re even pregnant.

It’s even worse for moms and dads on the South Coast, where the average annual cost of child care for a family of four is $26,400 a year.

And even if you can afford that, you have to beat out nearly 14,000 other kids vying for the same slots.

That’s the harsh reality of an issue terrorizing local parents of infants to 5 year olds — 65 percent of whom need preschool or child care because they need to go back to work.

“So, really, families can’t make it,” said Ben Romo, executive director of the First 5 Santa Barbara County nonprofit. “Families have to compromise on child care.”

A compromise could be sending kids to some lower-quality options — about a quarter of 11,000 licensed spaces are glorified babysitting — or letting grandparents or other family members baby-sit.

The problem with that, Romo said, is that the majority of a child’s brain development takes place before they even reach kindergarten, and some child-care options would rather put kids in front of a TV than come up with academically stimulating activities.

“Our entire future depends on growing these brains effectively,” he said. “There’s no standard for quality.”

The grimness of the county’s child-care shortage has prompted First 5 to host its first-ever forum on the issue Monday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Downtown Library’s Faulkner Gallery.

As a nonprofit focused on preparing children for kindergarten, First 5 is gathering a five-person panel that includes Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson to let residents, employers and philanthropists know what’s going on and how they can help.

“A big part of this is the cost of care,” Romo said.

As a new mom considering going back to work to chip in to her family of four’s income, Yendi Lopez experienced sticker shock first hand.

So instead of returning to the health-care consulting business, Lopez and her husband decided she would stay home with their 2-month-old son, Sage — at least for the first year.

“I’d really be going back to work to pay for childcare,” said Lopez, whose husband is picking up extra shifts with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department to make ends meet. “It’s a tough situation. We can’t afford it. We’re OK. We’re surviving right now.”

But they’re not saving, she said, which means they’ll be living in their Santa Barbara rental for a while.

Lopez will be a forum panelist, sharing her story to hopefully inspire the powers that be to fund new child-care and preschool options.

First 5 is already doing its part, this year helping fund more state-run preschools at the Santa Maria-Bonita School District in the North County.

The organization provided a grant, and the school district found matching funds to be able to offer three more preschool classes serving 72 children, according to Mark Muller, Santa Maria-Bonita’s assistant superintendent of instructional services.

That’s on top of 432 students already in nine state preschools and 96 students in migrant preschools on district campuses.

These kids are the ones getting a head start on their education, Muller said.

“They’re engaging in collaborative activities,” he said. “It’s quite comprehensive.”

Muller said fewer than half of Santa Maria area preschool-age children are actually enrolled, usually because there isn’t space or because the parents make just enough to not qualify for subsidies.

“Even if parents are above the income level, they still might not have the money to send them to a private preschool,” he said.

Of 150 center-based child-care/preschool programs countywide, 36 are state preschool (1,700 spaces, family of four qualify with annual income up to $47,000), 26 are head start (1,100 spaces, family below federal poverty level) and the remaining 88 are private and run by a nonprofit, church or employer.

Romo said 392 family child-care providers round out available spots.

He’s hoping others will want to invest in current programs or help open more center-based options.

“How can the community step up?” Romo said. “We need (donors) to know. The research is there. Our entire future depends on growing these brains effectively.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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