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Federal funding bill includes $1M for Keene-based child-care training

In her 44 years at the Keene Day Care Center, Suelaine Poling has seen a lot, including the cost of child care skyrocket.

Poling, the center’s executive director, said she’s recently noticed another concerning trend: New workers are going into child care without much, if any, formal training.

Keene Day Care Center works with those employees to get them up to snuff, she said, often assigning them a veteran staff member as a mentor. But for those who go into child care simply because they enjoy working with kids, Poling said starting work at the center — which enrolls about 90 children among its six classrooms — can be difficult.

“It is a bit of a different animal to come into a child care program like this,” she said.

That issue prompted a new initiative, which was awarded $1 million in a draft federal-spending bill, to offer training and other professional development opportunities for child-care workers in the Monadnock Region.

Led by Keene State College and the Monadnock United Way, the proposal is meant to improve worker retention in the child-care industry and expand local care options, according to officials with those organizations.

Federal funding for the program — which U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced in a recent news release — is among more than $45 million slated for New Hampshire communities in the draft bill. If enacted, that legislation would also finance sewer maintenance in Keene.

On top of the training-related concerns, child-care groups have struggled to retain staff during the COVID-19 pandemic because other industries pay better and don’t involve working with an unvaccinated population, according to Deirdre McPartlin, director of Keene State’s Child Development Center.

That threatens to further limit the number of child-care options, which McPartlin called “a red flag for the economy” because it keeps parents out of the workforce.

Data from the nonprofit Child Care Aware show that in 2019, nearly four in 10 Granite State kids in working families did not have access to licensed child care while their parents were at work, The Sentinel reported previously.

As part of its new initiative with the Monadnock United Way, Keene State — which offers a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development — would aim to boost the number of providers by hosting courses for new and current child-care workers, according to McPartlin. The federal dollars may also go toward a study of child-care needs in the area, including local staffing and affordability issues, and could help fund scholarships for people to attend the individualized training courses, she said.

“We all know the foundation of high-quality programming is to have well-trained teachers,” she said. “… Not everyone is able to afford a four-year program [or] is academically prepared for a four-year program, so our goal on this expansion team is really to meet the needs of our professionals and, at the same time, support them in retention efforts so that they’re staying in the field.”

The partnership between Keene State and the Monadnock United Way grew out of conversations on child care those organizations were having with city officials, the Keene Family YMCA and various daycare groups, according to McPartlin and MUW President Liz LaRose.

Among the main issues on that topic, LaRose identified affordability and a lack of child-care options in the Monadnock Region, where many providers have long enrollment waitlists. She noted that as of 2016, a quarter of New Hampshire families spent more than 10 percent of their income on child care — above the 7 percent that experts consider an affordable rate.

With federal funding for the new program set to arrive next year, if approved, LaRose said MUW — the Keene arm of a global nonprofit that helps back efforts related to children, education, financial stability and other basic community needs — is working to determine the best use of those resources. The organization also hopes to identify other funding sources so it can continue the training in future years, she said.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to provide these services so that we can welcome more people into the field who love to work with children and would really love to have a wonderful job and a good career,” she said.

Leatrice Oram, chief of staff to Keene State President Melinda Treadwell, said the program “could get started right away, regardless of scale” if the federal funding comes through next year.

“We can do plenty with $1 million,” she said.

Poling said those efforts should also include trying to keep Monadnock Region natives in child-care jobs here, explaining that many experienced workers have left their jobs recently and that most young people interested in the field move away. Even the college students with part-time jobs at Keene Day Care Center often leave the area after graduating, further limiting the child-care workforce, she said.

But with more opportunities for professional development, Poling said, that trend could be reversed.

“It gives people a pathway and creates more of a feeling that this is a career,” she said.

Money for sewer maintenance

The federal spending bill also includes $325,000 for a maintenance review of Keene’s sewer system, Shaheen announced in the recent news release.

That project is needed because the city’s main sewer line, which carries all wastewater from Keene and Marlborough to a treatment plant near Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey, was built in 1985, according to Keene Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist.

Blomquist said last week he isn’t aware of any specific damage to the underground line but that it’s made of concrete, which can deteriorate over time. The federally funded assessment would check for any blockages or weak points in that system, he said.

“No one has seen it since it was installed 36 years ago,” he said.

That work could involve temporarily draining the sewer line and probing it with a video camera, using ground-penetrating radar to detect any damage or sending signal-emitting technology through the line to check the wastewater flow, Blomquist said. The review would need to occur within around a year of receiving federal funding, he said.