For a fragile child care system, shared services and legislative activism show

Suelaine Poling has held a lot of different roles at the Keene Day Care Center since starting there in 1977.

She’s been a teacher, program coordinator, program director and even the cook. As executive director, a job she’s had since 2005, sometimes she still steps into all of these positions, and more.

“There’s always something,” Poling, a Keene resident, said in a recent interview. “… It could be stepping into a classroom to help out.

“… It might be plunging a toilet. It’s a variety of things. It’s a variety of fun things,” she added, with a laugh.

And in an industry that has been plagued for years by a host of challenges — staff shortages often driven by chronically low wages, and a scarcity of spots in child care centers that cost families more than they can afford — Poling has looked beyond the Monadnock Region for ways to help address them.

Specifically, the Keene Day Care Center is a member of the State Early Learning Alliance. The group works to minimize these challenges by connecting independent child care centers throughout New Hampshire to pool their resources, allowing them to save money on essential services and free up time to focus on providing high-quality care.

In neighboring Vermont, a nonprofit called Let’s Grow Kids is leading a campaign to increase that state’s investment in early childhood education with the goal of providing universal access by 2025.

Despite their different approaches to the fundamental problems with the child care system, which predate the current public health crisis, both groups are working to build a more sustainable system in the post-pandemic era.

SELA aims to save more together

SELA’s director, Cellissa Hoyt, said leaders of child care centers across New Hampshire regularly find themselves in the same overworked position as Poling.

“Very often, in small-to-medium-sized programs, the director and administrator or owner has to wear so many different hats,” Hoyt said. “They have to be an expert at the business operations side, and then they have to be an expert at the educational and the curriculum and the child and family-engagement and staff-supervision side.”

SELA, a membership-based group that launched in 2009 as an initiative of the United Way of the Greater Seacoast, harnesses shared purchasing power to negotiate better deals for a wide range of goods and services child care centers need, from building maintenance and insurance to food and classroom supplies. SELA has grown to 30 members, and is now under the umbrella of Early Learning N.H., a statewide nonprofit working on child care issues.

“And so the idea, then, is to take this economy of scale, and any savings based on that, and [reinvest] it back into what we call quality initiatives,” said Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning N.H. “… So you’re taking any savings you have by sharing really strong expertise across programs, and you might be able to pay your teachers better, you may be able to actually charge your parents less, you may be able to afford more mentoring.”

And as the child care industry begins to emerge from the pandemic, organizations like SELA are continuing the work they began before, with the ultimate goal of providing high-quality, accessible and affordable care for all who need it.

Keene Day Care Center — the only Monadnock Region SELA member — joined around 2012, Poling said, largely motivated by the cost-saving potential. The SELA membership costs $2,400 a year, she said, but as a result, the center saves a net average of $8,000 to $13,000 annually. The center, which serves about 90 kids from six weeks to 5 years old, has an annual budget of just over $1 million, Poling said.

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