The play area, just across the hall from the living room of her eastern New Orleans home, is where Wenona Dupart has taken care of toddlers for 20 years. Katrina's flooding had a hand in putting her business on hold, but in January 2006 she reopened her doors to the little ones who call her "Nanny." Dupart's thriving business, juxtaposed against a neighborhood of abandoned buildings and houses that have yet to be gutted, signals some hope for both this blighted area and for a local sector in peril.
The hustle and bustle of toddlers learning and playing inside Dupart's classroom demonstrates that a few lucky parents have succeeded in finding quality childcare locally -- but their good fortune represents one drop in a bucket that has grown to be fathoms deep. The six children for whom she cares are among thousands who need daycare in the state's most devastated areas. For many, there simply is none.
Katrina's destruction dealt an enormous blow to local institutions such as healt care and the public school system, and the childcare sector is no exception. Agenda for Children, a local, nonprofit childcare advocacy group, reports that the 276 licensed childcare facilities in Orleans Parish pre-Katrina has dwindled to just 92 as of June 30. The group also estimates that there were 447 registered family-based childcare centers (private providers who care for up to six children in their homes) in New Orleans before the storm. Katrina has brought that number down to 51.
This portends bad news in a state where the large number of low-income families and single-parent households has long made childcare a precious commodity. KIDS COUNT, a national group that annually compiles state-by-state data to provide benchmarks of children's well being, reports that 49 percent of Louisiana's children live in low-income families. Statistics also rank Louisiana as the state with the highest percentage of children living in single-parents households in the nation. Katrina closed many centers and compromised the quality of others, escalating an already dire situation to crisis status.
The state's childcare shortage has put children needing daycare on waiting lists instead of in pre-school. Garden District non-profit childcare center Kingsley House experiences this every day as staffers regretfully turn away children seeking spots in their program. The center's federally funded Early Head Start (EHS) program, which provides comprehensive childcare services to children of low-income families aged 11 months to three years old, currently has a waiting list of about 400 children.
"It's just impossible to get these kids into the program before they're too old," says Adrian Todd, Kingsley House associate director of programs.
Even when Todd tries to point parents toward help, she realizes there is no end in sight to this escalating difficulty. "We try to refer them to wherever there's an opening," she says. "Problem is that there are no openings."
Parents have traditionally taken one of three routes when seeking childcare -- licensed childcare centers, registered home-based centers, and unregistered home-based centers. Post-Katrina, each type of childcare facility faces unique challenges. Institutional, licensed facilities such as Kingsley House have long been a popular option, but huge waiting lists now place them beyond the reach of many.
Some parents sought childcare from family-based childcare providers, but some, like Wenona Dupart, are registered with the state while others fly below government radar. Because opening a childcare center at one's home does not entail the year-long licensing process that institutional centers must go through, providers can get businesses up and running relatively quickly. However, finding homes to use is difficult in a city where many houses remain unlivable.
Agenda for Children cites a deluge of Katrina-related problems affecting institutional centers. A majority of these facilities remain closed, and the open ones may not be able to satisfy the unique needs of parents working after the storm.
"The current landscape (of the city) requires more flexibility than ever," says Judy Watts, Agenda for Children president. "People are often at a significant distance from home or work."
Flexibility is what working parents need, but it's something that many institutionalized centers may not be able to provide because many do not take children before and after traditional business hours. This situation, aggravated by a lack of reliable public transportation, makes dependable childcare even more of a challenge.
Many providers face similar obstacles as they return to New Orleans, where reviving their businesses also means reviving their homes. While Dupart has rebuilt her house and her daycare, others have not been so lucky. "It's horrible. No family childcare providers are back," she says. "They're not here, not here after two years. Where are they? Are they coming back? It's pretty bleak."
Watts also cites higher-than-usual rents after the storm as one factor keeping family-based providers away. Before Katrina, she says, the majority of the city's households were rentals. "You can imagine that family-based childcare providers were represented [in that number]," she says.
As the city waits for childcare providers to return, Agenda for Children strives to locate residents willing to provide care out of their homes. The agency has sponsored fairs and radio campaigns to enlist providers, but the response so far has been minimal.
"I think there are people out there," Watts says. "We just need to find them."
Institutional childcare centers face issues finding qualified individuals to teach. KIDS COUNT reports that Louisiana's median hourly wage for childcare personnel is $6.55 -- the lowest in the nation. Centers are struggling to compete in the post-Katrina workforce, where working in fast-food chains often pays better than caring for children.
The childcare sector even finds itself at odds with the school system, where KIDS COUNT reports that childcare workers' counterparts typically earn more, work less and receive benefits such as health insurance and paid leave.
Lanette Dumas, who coordinates a training program called "Positive Steps" at Agenda for Children, acknowledges the difficulty of competing with the school system. "As soon as teachers qualify, they go and teach Pre-K," she says.
Aspiring teachers with associate or bachelor's degrees in early childhood education often prefer jobs in school-certified pre-schools, resulting in a childcare sector where 77 percent of assistant teachers and 64 percent of lead teachers list a high school diploma as their highest level of education, according to KIDS COUNT. Fewer and fewer qualified teachers gravitating toward the childcare business means a high child-to-teacher ratio, and consequently lower quality childcare.
Dupart cites the potentially wide disparity in that ratio as one of the flaws of institutionalized childcare centers. "[In centers], the ratio is not always what it should be," she says. "To me, I don't think they get personally involved. And they don't get paid enough."
A lack of quality childcare not only hurts Louisiana's families; it also impedes the city's recovery on a wider scale, says Watts. "If families can't find childcare, they're not going to come back to the city."
With institutionalized centers unable to meet the needs of post-Katrina parents, an alternate form of childcare could emerge as parents' primary option. If more childcare providers return and continue the rebuilding process, family-based childcare may help mend the damaged childcare infrastructure -- but not before it clears itself of the stigma it carries in some quarters.
"Sometimes it's devalued," admits Dumas. "But it's not just about sitting for babies, but providing quality childcare."
Watts agrees. She adds that the unique environment in many family-based centers may be ideal for younger children. "Some sectors look down on family childcare. They associate it with babysitting," Watts says. "But it's a big part of the childcare fabric, particularly for infants and toddlers because of the intimate setting."
The state attempts to ensure that family-based centers provide a personalized setting by imposing a six-child limit -- including children already living in the house -- on each center. Shalani Scott, who has operated a childcare business out of her Algiers home for a year, agrees that a smaller child-to-teacher ratio allows for more personalized attention and creates an environment more conducive to learning. "Kids can learn fast when there's not so many," she says. "If you have a group of 10, you're just going to go through it. With my group, I'm taking time with them."
Family-based childcare can help parents who strain to fit childcare into their non-traditional working schedules. "They're more flexible," Scott adds, noting that many offer early daycare hours and after-hours for working parents. "It's hard to find neighborhood-based transportation systems from school to home."
"It gives parents options," Dumas adds.
Such providers must seem like saviors to parents desperately seeking personalized, flexible care for their children, but many also worry that the quality of care in someone's home may not be on par with that found in institutionalized centers. However, the quality standards that family-based centers adhere to is often better than many parents think.
The environment, number of personnel and class size at family-based centers bear little resemblance to those of licensed institutionalized centers, but state requirements make family-based centers similar in some ways to traditional childcare facilities. For example, while the state does not require family-based centers to be licensed, centers that seek federal subsidies must at least register with the state. Federal subsidies include reimbursements for providing food and Department of Social Services' Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) subsidies for children from moderate-to-low-income families.
Federal subsidies not only help mitigate some provider expenses, but they also place these childcare providers and their homes under federal regulation. Those who register with the state must receive training that entails three hours of safety and health training, 12 hours a year of childcare development training and an annual orientation session -- the same training given to personnel in Class A centers, a category that most federally funded centers fall under.
The state also conducts periodic checks to make sure that the home and the people living there create a proper environment for toddlers. The state fire marshal inspects homes used for family-based childcare, and everyone 18 or older living in the house must pass a criminal background check. The industry standard Family Child Care Environmental Rating Scale (FCCERS) outlines standards for the homes to maintain and is akin to the state's Quality Rating Scale (QRS) used in Louisiana to rate licensed, Class A facilities. Using the FCCERS puts home-based care virtually on par with that in institutionalized facilities.
"We've already been assessing family childcare on the same standards as the QRS," Watts says. "Although they're not part of the QRS system, these homes are still subject to the same standards."
Agenda for Children also performs periodic checks to ensure that family-based childcare providers continually adhere to the standards. "We have a contract to go into these homes on a regular basis, to keep up on how they're doing," she says. "We have a friendly relationship. We make suggestions on improving wherever it is needed."
The Institute of Mental Hygiene (IMH) also provides Agenda for Children with kits that, according to Watts, contain "materials that align with environmental standards" to distribute to family-based childcare providers in Orleans Parish.
"Family-based providers are typically glad to see us --Êwe are a friend and a helper -- but bringing the 'goodies' -- the kits -- we're more welcome," Watts says.
Because registration with the state is voluntary, it's possible that some family-based centers provide low-quality care unbeknownst to the government or agencies like Agenda for Children. Todd Battiste, vice president for children and families at the Greater New Orleans United Way, says unregistered providers are a big concern. "It's often difficult to regulate, because anyone can keep kids in their home and not report to the state," says Battiste, who helped bring United Way's Success by Six program -- an initiative that focuses on childcare -- to New Orleans.
Because unregistered home-based centers don't report to the state, it's impossible to know how many of them actually exist. "We haven't really researched that issue," Battiste says of the unregistered facilities. "I've heard that folks are keeping kids in (FEMA) trailers. I also know of some that are providing great care in their homes. They understand quality care and are providing it.
"We encourage people to come from under the radar and take advantage of what the state has to offer," he adds.
Although no one knows how many unregistered home care providers there are, Agenda for Children only refers parents to quality, registered centers.
While the future of childcare in New Orleans remains uncertain, quality care is more important than ever to children's development. KIDS COUNT reports that children have the capacity to make huge gains in their social, linguistic and cognitive skills from birth to age five if their surroundings, which often include childcare, help facilitate it. A proper early childhood environment is especially important to children in Louisiana, a state which KIDS COUNT ranks second-to-last in the nation in terms of overall indicators of child well being.
While studying early childhood education at Delgado, Dupart came to a similar realization. "I learned that everything you need to learn, you learn in early childcare," she says. "This is a serious business. Children need people who know what they're doing."
As for the toddlers at "Nanny's Playhouse," whether they are engrossed in a picture book or dancing to music in their miniature classroom, they are among the lucky ones. They have not become reduced to names on a long waiting list; instead, they have good day care.
"I feel like I'm changing six lives at a time," Dupart says.