Having to choose between going to work and paying for quality child care has been a reality for many Indiana parents during the past year, as remote learning kept children at home and increased families’ need for aid.
The pandemic is easing, but on the heels of job layoffs and furloughs, money is still tight for many.
Sharom Cardenas, a single mother who works in a plastic molding factory, is among them.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Sophie Romero, attends the summer camp at Young Minds Development Center, a preschool in Mishawaka.
“I have a very tight budget because it’s just myself,” she said. “I don’t have anyone to take care of Sophie.”
Now, the state has created a program to help parents like her.
Build, Learn, Grow provides scholarships to children of Indiana essential workers to attend early care and educational programs. It’s an effort to keep parents in the work force, provide quality care for their children and keep child care facilities in business, said Nicole Norvell, director of Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.
Another one of the program’s goals, Norvell said, is to address “learning gaps” for children after a school year marked by remote and hybrid learning.
The scholarship will cover up to 80% of the costs of tuition and runs through October.
To qualify for the aid, at least one adult in a household must work in an industry deemed “essential.” According to the state, that includes health care, human services, retail, restaurant and food service, essential infrastructure, media, manufacturing and logistics, and religious and charitable organizations, among others.
The program is administered by the FSSA Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning in partnership with the state’s Early Learning Indiana and Indiana Afterschool Network. And the 50,000 Build, Learn, Grow scholarships available to Indiana residents, worth $101 million, are being paid for by the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Who is eligible?
Build, Learn, Grow scholarships cover up to 80% of the cost of a child care program’s tuition for families with incomes of up to 250% of the federal poverty level.
For example, a household of four whose monthly gross income is $5,521 or less, qualifies for a scholarship worth 80% of the cost of tuition at a participating preschool or child care center.
Households with incomes between 251% and 400% of the federal poverty level qualify to have 60% of tuition costs covered, and those with incomes of 401% of the federal poverty level and above qualify to have 20% of costs covered.
After families fill out the application form, it’s submitted to their participating child care program of choice.
Families can find programs already enrolled on the Build, Learn, Grow website at https://brighterfuturesindiana.org/build-learn-grow. A map on the site directs users by county to programs in their area.
Norvell noted the program is new and said some child care providers may not have signed up yet to take part.
“If a family has a place they really want to go, maybe it’s a summer program that their child has attended before and really loves, there’s no reason not to go to that program to say, ‘Hey, I would qualify for this scholarship,’” she said.
Child care and educational programs have to be pre-approved to become eligible to take the scholarships.
In St. Joseph County, there are currently 69 programs enrolled with Build, Learn, Grow.
‘A little bit of breathing room’
Kari Alford, executive director of the Early Childhood Development Center at Saint Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame, said, “Early childhood education is extremely important to lay the foundation for the rest of their lives. We are excited to be able to partner with the state.”
The ECDC, a Build, Learn, Grow participant, offers a summer camp for children 2½ to 10 years old. During the regular school year, it provides care and education to kids from ages 2 through kindergarten.
Svitlana Bychko has a 5-year-old son who attends the ECDC at Notre Dame. Her family recently received the scholarship.
Bychko, who teaches at the ECDC as well, was eligible as an educational provider, one of the many types of essential workers who qualify for the aid.
As both a parent and educator, Bychko said, “I think such support is important right now,” and noted many parents, including her husband, are currently unemployed because of the pandemic.
Vanessa Frias, the director of Young Minds in Mishawaka, said she is currently working with four households who’ve applied for the Build, Learn, Grow scholarship.
With the high cost of child care coming off of a financially stressful year, Frias said, “It gives (families) a little bit of breathing room.”
Nationally, the cost of child care and education, including after school care, is the third largest expense for families, after housing and food costs, according to the the Indiana Youth Institute’s 2021 data profile.
For example, the average cost of child care for an Indiana 4 year old is $9,557 a year, or $796 a month. The average annual cost of infancy care in Indiana is $12,612, or $1,051 a month.
Frias is grateful for the help from the federal government and the state.
“Indiana has really had a push for child care and making sure we didn’t fail,” she said.
Marni Lemons, deputy director of communications of FSSA, urges eligible families to take advantage of the Build, Learn, Grow scholarships.
“Now is a great time to get your child involved,” she said. “So they have care for the summer and families have the ability to find work.”