A day of pre-K at Boyd Elementary School. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

This week, the Springfield Daily Citizen and KY3 News are spotlighting the region’s child care crisis. It is a multifaceted problem, and some local experts admit they don’t know where to start to solve it. That’s because every angle to the issue presents challenges. 

The Daily Citizen is addressing one challenge at a time in what we’re calling the solutions series, in which we present the problem, some potential solutions and what might stand in the way of success.

The problem: Providing an early childhood education is a vital part of a child’s development, but child care of any kind is also unaffordable or inaccessible for many Springfield families.

A solution: The Springfield Public Schools Wonder Years program, which provides free early childhood education for pre-K students who qualify for it.

Wonder Years is a free preschool program open to children living in the Springfield Public Schools attendance area who will be 3 or 4 years old before August 1.  Priority is given to 4-year-olds. Although all families can apply for this program, there are often waitlists — and spots are typically given to those with income hardships.

To enroll, call 417-523-1333 to schedule a preschool screening or submit a screening appointment request and someone will be in touch with you.

How Wonder Years helps families

On the last day of classes at Boyd Elementary School, family members of kids in the Wonder Years preschool program got to share something with their kids they hadn’t been able to do all year. They had lunch together. With pandemic-era restrictions eased, visitors joined the kids to celebrate the end of the year. 

Tranise Swanson, right, and her youngest son, Tres. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Tranise Swanson brought McDonald’s for her youngest son, Tres, and they sat with other kids and their family members in a circle on the floor near the door to Sherri Eldred’s pre-K classroom. Now 5, Tres is the youngest of Swanson’s three children, and all of them enrolled in the public school system’s early childhood programs. 

Swanson said the free early childhood education they received had helped prepare them for kindergarten and the public school system in general. And, she said, it helped her solve the challenge of finding child care.

“It was so hard, mainly for the pricing, honestly,” she said. “I mean, you could find some places, but the pricing is outrageous. It’s really hard to manage. Because just day care alone, you’re talking $100 to $200 a week for his age.” 

Last school year was the first that the newly remodeled Boyd Elementary had classrooms devoted to SPS pre-K students. Christy Davis, the director of the Wonder Years program, said that expanding early childhood programs across the district reflects a mission to treat every child in Springfield like an SPS child. 

The director of the Wonder Years program is Christy Davis. (Photo: SPS)

“Because if it’s not my student today, it might be my kindergartener next week, and so we’ve got to figure out how we can support the child,” she said. 

With Wonder Years, Davis said the district is trying to provide an option for parents of 4-year-olds (and some 3-year-olds depending upon availability) whose children would qualify for financial assistance programs like free or reduced lunch. 

“That would suggest to us that they probably don’t have the extra money lying around to put toward a really high-quality preschool program. Also, we know that those higher-quality preschool programs are difficult to get into. And I think that has increased during the pandemic.”

Nearly half of the district’s K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Along with leading the program, Davis said she tries to get the word out about it. That effort, she said, has led to many evenings spent on Springfield’s numerous Facebook moms sites, where she posts about the opportunity. 

She said that many who are referred to Wonder Years first learned about it by participating in the SPS Parents as Teachers program, a service that includes annual developmental screenings and access to parenting resources for families who sign up their prenatal to pre-K children. So getting the word out about that program is a key step in letting new parents in need know that the Wonder Years program is available later on. Last month, two parent educators attended a Juneteenth celebration to do that. 

Tres is getting out the wiggles on his last day of pre-K at Boyd Elementary School. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Rachel Christensen said that when she’s meeting with children and parents during her Parents as Teachers visits, she pitches Wonder Years as an option. 

“You would have kids in full-day, all-day, preschool,” she said she tells parents. “And it would be of no cost to you. Does that sound like a good option? Heck yeah it does.”

Kamesha Jones had her first child, who is now 14, when she was in high school. Her school counselors told her about the Wonder Years program back then. 

“They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re going to need this,’” she said. 

Now Jones is an SPS school counselor, and she tells parents who are in similar situations to the one she navigated to get their kids on the Wonder Years waiting list, because it offers more than day care. 

“That’s my main thing,” she said. “Because a lot of parents just see it as free day care. And it’s not. It’s a learning experience for the kids. Not just education-wise, but social and emotional skills are tremendous. There’s a lot of kids right now, especially during the pandemic, since they were stuck at home, that don’t have those skills right now.”

A barrier:  Other than in cases of significant need for 3-year-olds, SPS does not offer care for ages infant to 3, and preschool programming is tied to the regular school calendar, so schedules might not align with parent work schedules. Gaps exist. 

A pre-K classroom right after the kids are out the door. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Three of the four SPS early childhood centers (Adah Fulbright, Campbell, Shady Dell) offer after-school care until 5:30 p.m. The Wonder Years programs at Arthur Mallory Early Childhood Center and in elementary school settings do not offer after-school care, and none currently offer care before the first school bell rings. 

Christensen said she is upfront with parents interested in Wonder Years. 

“You have to be able to provide transportation,” she said. “You might have to be able to find before and after school care. If they’re not at one of the early childhood centers, then that is the biggest gap, I think. If they’re not at the center, then there’s really a lacking opportunity for day care, because they need somewhere that they can drop their kid off that would take them to their school, or pick up their kid from the school and take them to the day care center until they can be picked up in the evening.”

Christensen said she knows of one day care center that drops off and picks up several Wonder Years kids at Bowerman Elementary School. “But it’s a limited range because they don’t want to be driving all over the city,” she said. 

The summer also presents a gap in coverage. In-person SPS Explore, summer programming is available for rising K-8 students for six weeks in the summer, but there are weeks-long gaps on each end of that offering where families must find child care in absence of public school system programming.

This series is published in coordination with KY3 News. Watch the evening newscasts all this week on the Ozarks CW and KY3 News, or go to their website for related coverage.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson