Diverse task force tackles lack of available preschool space in San Mateo County

SVCF’s Center for Early Learning convenes community leaders to advocate for early childhood education.

Notes from a convening on June 23 by SVCF’s Center for Early Learning for community leaders to advocate for early childhood education:

Today, I’m in San Mateo, joining a  meeting convened by our Center for Early Learning, and am about to listen in on a group brainstorm: How can we work together to create better access to high-quality child care in San Mateo County?

But first, we have to troubleshoot the projector, which inexplicably has no signal. There is no lack of awkward jokes exchanged about the irony of our technical difficulties in the middle of Silicon Valley. The man sitting next to me discreetly admits that he’s glad it’s not just him who struggles with technology. He’s Harvey Schloss, from Congregation Beth Am, and is a community organizer. 

Other attendees are filtering in now, and their occupations are diverse. There are attendees who represent small businesses, local nonprofits, religious communities and local politicians. I see folks from First 5 San Mateo County and the San Mateo County Office of Education. This is the root of why I’m here; there’s power in bringing all parties to the table to work on holistic solutions that make our region better for all. And this is the SVCF story that I want to share; different groups working together can move the needle on our most challenging local problems.

According to a recent survey conducted by Brion Economics, Inc., 69 percent of San Mateo County child care sites interviewed have waitlists.

This task force is focusing on addressing the gap in the current supply of facilities for early childcare and education programs; without a doubt, a pressing local issue. As the group discusses the data from a recent survey, the conversation quickly gets personal. Jenifer Clark, evaluation specialist at First 5 San Mateo County, talks about how people think she is lucky to live a five-minute walk from her office, but she has to commute 45 minutes in a car to reach available child care.

The demand for child care in San Mateo County far exceeds the number of current available spaces in local child care centers and family-run home childcare.  Just as residents are being priced out of the local housing market, so too are businesses, childcare providers included. A local preschool was recently priced out of Menlo Park when its rent was set to quintuple.

The group breaks into teams to further discuss how to move forward in three specific areas:

  •     new revenue generation for child care facilities
  •     the re-use of existing space and
  •     implementing new policies or incentives

Quickly, ideas are volleyed within each group. Could we fast-track new building of childcare facilities by declaring a state of emergency (as has been done in the past for farm worker housing)? Could we offer childcare in existing spaces, perhaps during non-traditional business hours?  Could we team up with hospitals (they share our general mission of promoting well-being and are large property owners)? Can we encourage businesses to offer child care as a benefit? 

Quickly the walls are plastered with notes and the team is left to discuss the most viable options out of all of the ideas. The strongest recommendations will be decided on and researched further so that plans of action can be discussed at the next task force meeting. 

Avo Makdessian and Michelle Sioson Hyman, both from SVCF’s Center for Early Learning, close the meeting.

“There is substantial research that has proven time and time again that high quality early care and education sustained throughout the first years of life is a critical predictor of a child’s life-long success,” said Makdessian, director of the Center for Early Learning, “There are over 4,600 low-income children under five years old in San Mateo County who qualify for subsidized early care and education; however there are not enough programs available to serve them*. Further, San Mateo County has missed out on close to $1 million annually in federal and state funds to expand programs for low-income children because of a shortage of available facilities to house these programs.”

Sioson Hyman agrees: “That’s why we’re convening this task force; we need to work together to find solutions that will provide sustainable funding and space for childcare in our region.”

Makdessian and Sioson Hyman both have young children, and are familiar with the struggle to find local child care. “I visited over 14 sites before finding a space that I thought was safe, met the quality education standards for my children to learn and thrive, and was close to home,” says Sioson Hyman, “And to meet  those requirements we are using one-third of our take-home income every month to pay for child care.”

The task force will reconvene in October and will later release a set of recommendations for San Mateo County to address the urgent need for early care and education facilities.

*San Mateo County Child Care Partnership Council