You don't get any easy answers — just advertisements and a list of child care centers — if you do an online search for child care in Springfield MO. A new service called Child Care Connect will change that soon. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Fourth in a series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

Why care? A severe shortage of quality child care slots — and parents confused about where to turn for information — puts some families at risk. It also adds to workforce shortages as parents scramble to find affordable care.

If you are a parent in search of child care in Springfield and the surrounding area, the onus is on you to find it. There is no single place to begin a search for available care.

That is going to change soon thanks to a website being developed by early childhood experts at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks and Springfield Public Schools. 

The goal is to help parents find child care openings without having to call every provider in town,  said Dana Carroll, vice president of Early Childhood and Family Development for Community Partnership of the Ozarks. 

The service will be called Child Care Connect, and it is accessible through the Community Partnership of the Ozarks website. Carroll said it will fill a major need to help families in Greene, Christian, Polk and Webster counties find child care resources, she said. The site is live, but Carroll said they are currently working on collecting information about open slots that providers have. They are not yet ready to begin connecting families to child care, but she said they will take the referrals and “get them connected as soon as possible.”

Currently, parents and expectant parents compete to find child care in a system in crisis. The pandemic resulted in a net reduction of nearly 700 spots for children at licensed day cares in Greene County. While about 8,900 slots are available, estimates show the demand for child care is even greater, with parents of nearly 4,200 children under age 6 turning to unlicensed in-home care, grandparents, family or friends to help fill the need. The typical waitlist for child care at a licensed center in Springfield is anywhere from 9 to 18 months — even longer for babies under age 2.

The lack of options — and lack of a single, authoritative resource of information for child care in Greene County — leads many parents to make desperate choices, accepting potentially risky care options for their children.

In answer to the situation, Carroll is working with Christy Davis, director of Springfield Public School’s Wonder Years and Parents as Teachers early childhood efforts, to develop the service, which will be housed at CPO. It is expected to work like this:

  • Parents will fill out an online survey to submit information about their child care needs.
  • Providers will report information about openings that are available. 
  • The website managers will update a spreadsheet with available spaces, and parents will be able to see it and get help from CPO staff in making decisions about the spaces that fit their needs. 
  • There will also be a phone hotline linked to the service.

The service will feature only providers who meet certain standards, including licensed centers, license-exempt centers at churches or schools and home providers who care for six children or fewer.

Carroll said filling out the online survey will help inform staff on how best to help a parent, but they will work with people who call for help, too. 

“We’re not going to say, ‘You need to call this person and get into this child care center,’” Carroll said. “We’re going to say, ‘Here’s some that we know that have openings currently who follow the guidelines that have been established by the state in operating child care.'”

STORY CONTINUES BELOW:


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.


Missouri Gov. Mike Parson meets with the media on Jan. 28, 2021, to announce signing an executive order establishing the Office of Childhood, consolidating most childhood programs across state government to one new office. (Screenshot from Facebook Live)

State funding set for regional hubs

The new Springfield service will offer area parents a lifeline similar to what Missouri’s newly created Office of Childhood intends to eventually offer with a statewide website. The concept is that parents who answer a series of questions online (or by phone) will quickly learn if their children qualify for programs like Head Start or Parents as Teachers, and also connect families with other community resources in the counties where they need them. 

Director Pam Thomas said the state site — still to be developed — will build upon information gathered through a set of public-private partnership regional hubs. The hub model was touted in the state’s successful 2019 application for a $33.5 million federal grant to fund improved training for early childhood professionals and develop systems that help parents make informed decisions about early learning options. 

Thomas, who authored the grant, wrote that regional hubs would provide families with streamlined access to the early childhood education system where they live. The proposal initially called for a set of pilot programs to test the regional hub model across the state, but the pandemic forced a pause, and allowed Thomas and her staff time to gather and discuss feedback from community leaders across the state. 

Based on feedback, Thomas said the state pivoted from putting hubs in physical locations and decided to focus on virtual ones. Bidding is underway on a contract to oversee the project, and Thomas said funding is in place to kick off the effort this fall — and to sustain the program once in operation.

The statewide resource will filter in information collected at the regional hub level. There are currently 30 regional hubs on the Missouri map, including one for Greene, Webster and Christian counties. 

Kevin Mills simultaneously prepares a bottle and pays attention to two-year-old Bexlynn. Mills chose to stay home to care for his two youngest children after he and his wife were unable to find affordable care. “We checked so many different places,” Mills said. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Recently closed ‘One Stop for Early Childhood’ was possible model

In Springfield, a possible prototype for a physical regional hub was housed at the Council of Churches of the Ozarks — but it closed last month amid confusion over the direction of the statewide program. 

Founded in 2014, the One Stop for Early Childhood connected parents with Springfield resources that can help get their young children kindergarten ready. 

But last month, after being told the state had yet again dragged its feet on funding the concept, that program’s director, Nicole Piper, left the nonprofit world after nearly 25 years to work for Bass Pro Shops. 

Several top child care advocates in Springfield had rallied around the idea of housing the local state-supported regional hub under the One Stop roof, and Piper was one of two community leaders tapped to move the project forward. Then last spring, the staff at Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, told the advocates that regional hub decisions would be contracted on a statewide rather than local basis. In a document sent to DESE, the community leaders advocated for hubs like Springfield’s with “an actual plan to move forward with their plan,” and described the decision not to do it that way as an unexpected shock. 

“I know the teams that had been working on all this were shocked and very disappointed,” said Jaimie Trussell, CEO of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks. “In my mind, this confirmed a state position of ‘no confidence’ in the model put forward by the local team.” 

Rather than wait for investment from the state, Trussell told Piper in the spring that the One Stop for Early Childhood model wasn’t sustainable and the Council would not be pursuing the hub concept.

“What I want to do is serve people well,” Trussell said. “If the state wants to pay us to do that, great. But I am not going to build a program and hope that they fund it someday. We’re done doing that. We did that for eight years.”

Piper was told her skill level was too high for the reorganization, and her position at the Council would change if she stayed onboard.  

I knew that there are partners in the community who will take (the One Stop model) and run with it and will make it successful.

Nicole piper, former director of the one stop for early childhood

Piper left. She now works as the grants and engagement specialist for Bass Pro Shops, where she directs funding to employees in need rather than seeking it out. She said she was sad to leave behind One Stop and the early childhood field, because it had been her life’s work for 24 years. 

“But also at the same time, I knew that there are partners in the community who will take (the One Stop model) and run with it and will make it successful,” she said. 

Council of Churches still offering help to families

Although the Council of Churches of the Ozarks no longer has staff dedicated to the early childhood mission, it will continue to try to help families with referrals to address resource needs, such as diapers, food and minor home repairs.

People with immediate needs can call 417-862-3586 and get connected with Council of Churches staff who will try to help direct them with resources in Springfield.

Whether the website clearinghouse at CPO will eventually be part of the state’s investment in the early child care crisis is not something Carroll will wait to find out, but she said she is hopeful it will be. 

She said she is giving the state “a little bit of grace” because the task of folding numerous early child care government programs into one Office of Childhood warrants it. Plus, she said, the governor has shown that early child care is a high priority. If state funding is provided, it will go through the public school district, and Carroll said she is hopeful that will happen. 

Meanwhile, Carroll said that CPO has the capacity and the mission to take this on, and that they will look locally for support for the service.

“We are so collaborative in this part of the country, in this part of the state, that I’m not fearful that we’ll be able to find a way to support families and child care providers,” she said. “I feel really good about it. I just think it’s going to take us a little bit longer than we were hoping.”

Read other stories in our series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

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