February 1, 2023 702 PM
ALPINE — This coming fall, the Alpine Independent School District plans to open a public day care center for preschool-aged children in an effort to alleviate stresses on local parents caused by an ongoing lack of reliable child care options.
The establishment of the center, which will accommodate 50 children ages six months to three years old and likely be housed in the west wing of the district’s existing administration building, will be made possible by recently-received grant dollars in the amount of $500,000 from the Texas Workforce Commission and nonprofit Workforce Solutions Borderplex (WSB).
Alpine, which has been home to larger day care centers in the past, currently lacks a public child care facility. Without that resource, some local parents have had to rely on the help of friends and family and have struggled to secure child care for their children during working hours.
The entire tri-county area is classified by the Texas Workforce Commission as a “child care desert,” due to the shortage of licensed child care facilities. In Alpine, the number of preschool-aged children exceeds available child care spots by 9 to 1, according to a press release announcing Alpine ISD’s forthcoming day care center.
Dr. Michelle Rinehart, superintendent of Alpine ISD, said she noticed how the lack of child care facilities was negatively impacting families while out meeting with district employees and community members when she first began in her role in June 2021.
“We have had staff who have stepped down from teaching positions because they don’t have consistent reliable day care,” said Rinehart. “Other businesses were expressing those same concerns.”
In an anonymous survey conducted by WSB this fall in order to determine the demand for child care in the area, 82%, or 134 out of 163 parents surveyed, said they had a child under the age of 13 and required child care services. Those surveyed voiced needs for an available, affordable child care entity which followed state regulations. Some stated the child care shortage was detrimental to the town and a limiting factor for many parents in Alpine. One survey participant commented they felt like they shouldn’t have to choose between having a job and having a family.
With those challenges in mind, Rinehart began formulating a plan with Alpine Community Projects, a new nonprofit focused on making Alpine a better place for its residents. Efforts by the group to expand child care are headed up by Kirsten Moody and J.D. Newsom. Representatives from the Alpine Business Alliance, City of Alpine and Sul Ross were also involved in conversations.
Other school districts in Far West Texas operate day care centers, but for the most part those centers are offered as a service to district employees exclusively, said Rinehart, which seemed too narrow an approach for Alpine.
“We need to bring more community partners in, which also means we need to serve the needs of more [individuals] beyond our own teachers,” said Rinehart.
As a result, the day care will base its hours of operation on the broader needs of the community and will likely remain open throughout the summer months, though the overall schedule and holidays will likely align with the school calendar, said Rinehart.
One of the main challenges the informal leadership group is also weighing is the financial viability of a day care business in Alpine. Previous public day cares struggled to strike a balance between charging a fair daily rate locals could afford while staying adequately staffed and meeting state requirements. A day care run by Sul Ross, which at the time of its closure in August of 2021 was only serving faculty and students, was operating at a deficit.
Rinehart said she hopes the collaborative approach to the Alpine ISD child care center will keep it afloat financially, with more stakeholders seeking out more grant funding.
“All of these organizations came to the table and said, yes, we agree, this is a persistent, complex challenge in our community. We’re all going to have some kind of skin in the game, whether that’s financial or other creative, add-value solutions, so that no one organization has to incur those losses,” said Rinehart.
Sul Ross, for example, is exploring ways to fund part-time work study positions for education students to come work at the center. The possibility of local businesses helping to subsidize day care tuition for their employees has been floated. The day care center still needs to raise $200,000 a year in addition to start-up grant funds in order to balance the proposed budget.
Rinehart said the current market rate for day care in Alpine, which Alpine ISD plans to charge for day care tuition, is a rate of $30 to $40 a day per child, or roughly $930 to $1,240 a month. In Alpine, the median annual household income is around $43,000, with 17.4% of the population being considered in poverty, according to 2021 Census data.
Out of the 50 available day care spots, some will be available to the public at large while some may be reserved for district employees or low-income families who will receive subsidies, said Rinehart. While the specifics are still being worked out, Rinehart said affordability is of concern.
“That was important to us too that we would be able to serve as many children from as many different families and realities in Alpine as possible,” said Rinehart. “Because one of our big driving focuses here is how can we provide high quality, consistent, reliable day care so that families have more economic opportunities?”
Lynne Crim, who served in several capacities at the Alpine Community Center day care — a longstanding facility that first opened in the 1950s and shuttered recently — including as its director for several years, experienced the financial hardships that come from trying to keep a rural day care program afloat. “It was a struggle just to make ends meet because we couldn’t charge city prices,” said Crim.
She recalled how the center would host “trike-a thons” every year where kids would earn 10 cents toward their day care fees from a sponsor for every lap they completed around the playground. The Alpine Community Center day care was, in part, supported by the local Methodist Church but had to keep up with added costs of bills and rent payments — money Alpine ISD’s new day care will save by being housed within an existing facility.
“It was a service to the community, and we didn’t want to keep raising prices if we could somehow avoid it,” said Crim. “You can’t make money in a rural area like this. Day cares will not make money. The school system has rooms, they’re already paid for. There’s not going to be any rent.”
Retaining staff and attracting substitutes in order to meet state requirements for child-to-caretaker ratios while not being able to offer competitive wages was another hurdle for Crim. Retaining quality day care staff is key to making sure children are having a positive experience, she said.
“It’s just not fair for a little kid to come in one day and see one person and the next day a different person. A month later, they’re gone and somebody else is there,” said Crim.
Alpine ISD plans to be the backbone of the new day care — its employees will be employees of the district and the day care will have access to technical and business management support via the district.
The search for a day care director who will work to get the facility up and running in time for the 2023-24 school year begins this month. The available space, located in what is now the district’s administration building, will require minor renovations but acted as a day care in previous years. The 1929 building was constructed as the original Alpine High School and has served the district well in various capacities over the years.
To house the new day care facility, the district will utilize several classrooms currently used as meeting rooms. Existing wooden cubbies in the hallway, a kitchen and smaller breakout rooms may prove useful for the day care space. An outdoor playground will also be brought back into the large parking lot area behind the building.
Rinehart said she anticipates the new day care center will add 11 jobs to the area that she hopes will bring in people passionate about working with very young children.
“We know that there are people here in Alpine and really, truly in the tri-county area, that have a love for children, and we haven’t had positions that serve these ages in our school district before,” said Rinehart.
At this point, the district does not plan to restrict enrollment to the day care based on home address, and Rinehart has been in conversations with leaders in Marfa and Fort Davis about replicating the model in those communities down the road.
“In so many ways these three communities are so intricately linked. There’s people that live here in Alpine and work in Marfa, and vice versa, that the day care would serve well,” said Rinehart.
Alpine ISD was the sole entity which responded to a recent request for proposals for a child care facility put out by Workforce Solutions Borderplex, a nonprofit with offices in Alpine and one of 28 public workforce development boards in the state. WSB has overseen child care resources, subsidized day care funding, employer services and more in the area for the past 20 years.
“What we say here is child care is one of the industries that every other industry is in need of,” said Marisela Correa, director of family services with Workforce Solutions Borderplex.
Correa said in addition to the lack of housing in the area, the shortage of child care options is among area employers’ common concerns. In the survey WSB conducted, Sul Ross students and Big Bend Regional Hospital District employees were among those with dire child care needs.
“[Employers] are not able to retain or recruit people to come and work in the communities because one of the main things [employees] would ask for was child care,” said Correa.
WSB, in addition to providing funding to help get the new Alpine ISD child care center up and running, has the ability to support the center financially in the future by purchasing and maintaining indoor and outdoor supplies and equipment such as cribs, toys, carpets, tables and chairs, curriculum and more.
Correa said she is glad to see the Alpine community pulling resources and working together on a child care solution. She, too, sees the opportunity for the program to spread and be replicated across the tri-county area.
WSB will soon hire outreach coordinators to introduce locals to the idea of becoming licensed home day care providers. Correa said the towns of Marfa and Presidio will be target areas for the initiative which aims to help people transition into the profession. Recently, the Small Business Development Center at Sul Ross hosted a webinar on how to start up a licensed home day care business where a lawyer and around 20 attendees went over legal requirements and more.
As it stands, few individuals operate licensed at-home day cares in Alpine. Such programs are only permitted to care for up to 12 children, and infants under one-year-old, due to the amount of care they require, count as two children.
Tara Bingham, who has operated a licensed day care facility out of her home in Alpine for the past seven years, currently has a year-and-a-half long waiting list for new clients.
“It’s sad because people will call us, and they’re looking for child care, and I wish we could accommodate them, but we just can’t,” said Bingham. “So many people need child care and there’s just not any.”
Bingham also runs an afterschool program where kids are provided a snack while they work on their homework and wait to be picked up by their parents. She said she enjoys the business and likes working children and their parents.
“It’s rewarding because you watch these children go from [infancy], and they’re going off to school, and you know you’ve played a big part in their first five years of life,” said Bingham.
Bingham employs one full-time caregiver and works with a volunteer. She said lately she’s noticed more people advertising babysitting services on Facebook, but in her experience, once people find out what all goes into running a home day care, they stop pursuing it.
“I think a lot of it is people that just don’t know the laws now and what the legalities are watching children,” said Bingham. “And then some of them, I think, are just doing it strictly out of desperation. They can’t find child care themselves. So they figure well, I’ll just watch a couple of children and that will help make ends meet.”
As with day care facilities, the safety of home day cares are of paramount concern for parents. Darrell R. Losoya, chief of police for the Alpine Police Department said they do not get a high volume of calls relating to concerns or complaints regarding child care facilities in the area, and while he has worked cases years in the past, none were in relation to existing home day cares. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services makes routine checks on licensed facilities to verify compliance, said Losoya, and APD will begin an investigation if criminal activity is reported.
Bingham said the state inspects her home once a year and Child Protective Services comes around every three to four months.
Bingham charges $20 a day to keep her home day care affordable for clients, a number of which are single parents with limited income, she said. She recently received a grant from Workforce Solutions Borderplex to develop a room just for her infants but said for the most part she has been on her own in terms of funding. Despite the challenges, she said she sees the need for and welcomes more day care providers in the area.
“Anybody that is wanting to do a day care, be it privately or be the school, I think it’ll be a big help to the community of Alpine,” said Bingham. “I give them all the kudos, because it’s a lot of work getting it going, but it’s worth it in the end.”