Working parents in Southwest Virginia need high quality childcare. The school system needs certified early childcare teachers. A new center at UVA Wise is meeting both of those needs and more.
By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
When the Little Cavaliers Early Learning Center opens its doors just across the street from the UVA Wise campus this month, it will serve as an oasis in a vast childcare desert.
A childcare desert is defined as an area where access to quality early childhood education programs is limited or not available. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took a bad situation and made it worse, it was estimated that nearly half of Virginia’s residents were living in childcare deserts.
That was particularly true in rural parts of the state. Data from Ready Region Southwest painted a picture of an unsustainable situation back in 2019. At that time, there were 12,935 childcare slots across the region with 5,894 additional slots needed to meet demand. Additional data from that time period estimated that the lack of quality childcare in Southwest Virginia was creating over $74 million in lost business revenue, and 43 percent of students were starting kindergarten without key skills.
With that in mind, UVA Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry has been trying to find a way to bring a childcare center to campus since she arrived at her post just over 10 years ago, but those efforts always hit a road block when it came to getting the necessary funding to accomplish that goal. That changed quickly, however, when employers in Virginia and across the nation started having difficulty filling job openings in the wake of the pandemic.
“The pandemic really exacerbated the issue because a lot of family-owned places and religious childcare centers just shut down,” Henry told the Business Journal during a walkthrough of the new center, which was made possible through a partnership between UVA Wise and the YWCA NETN and SWVA.
Almost overnight, the childcare crisis that had been brewing under the radar for most business leaders was identified as a major workforce and economic development issue. The topic started popping up at economic development summits and in state legislatures around the country. Kathy Waugh, CEO of the YWCA NETN and SWVA, said the pandemic was obviously a horrific public health emergency, but if it had a silver lining, it came in the form of the attention that was drawn to the need for quality childcare in our region and beyond.
“I hate to say this is something good that came out of the pandemic, but absolutely, the need for childcare came to the forefront,” Waugh said. “It was always there, but you heard it more from non-profits and parents.
“We had literally spoken to 30 or 40 corporations and business leaders in the previous 20 years because they’d seen the need and heard about the need, but they didn’t have the dollars to invest. They weren’t ready to invest the capital. With the pandemic, the closing of other centers, the need really rose to the top when parents couldn’t go back to work.”
The partnership between UVA Wise and YWCA goes back about a decade. Henry had been on campus for around six months when the faculty expressed the need for childcare, which prompted UVA Wise Board Chair Marcia Gilliam to connect Henry with Waugh in order to explore the possibility of a partnership.
Waugh and her team at YWCA had made some headway in partnering with businesses on high-quality childcare centers, most notably by establishing the Wellmont Child Development Center at Bristol Regional Medical Center back in 1999. YWCA manages the facility, which is geared to the needs of the healthcare professionals who rely on the center for childcare by staying open for extended hours.
When Henry and Gilliam toured the centers the YWCA manages in the Bristol area, they were sold on the fact that a high-quality childcare center was a worthy endeavor for UVA Wise to pursue. The lack of funding delayed that mission, but when the national conversation turned to the lack of childcare in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone involved was ready to spring into action.
“Once the crisis hit, we were able to make the move quickly,” Henry said.
A $12 million investment by the Virginia General Assembly last summer was earmarked for expanding UVA Wise’s role in the region. Some of that money went toward planning and construction of the Little Cavaliers Early Learning Center. The new 3,608-square-foot center will be able to to serve 45 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old in four classrooms that are developmentally appropriate for each age group.
Waugh said there have been plenty of requests from citizens in Wise County for slots at the new center, but she is confident the demand from students and faculty at the college will fill the center to capacity. Henry said she believes the availability of quality childcare will help in workforce retention and recruitment efforts.
“It will help me retain some of our faculty and staff that may have left to go other places,” Henry said. “This is a great solution for us.”
While the immediate availability of childcare is a huge victory for UVA Wise, it is far from the only benefit the new center offers. The center also has the ability to positively effect workforce and economic development efforts in Southwest Virginia for generations to come.
Andy Cox, Director of the teacher education program at UVA Wise, recalls being looped in on conversations about the new childcare center around two years ago. As the department chair of the education department, teaching endorsements fall under his purview, and in that regard the timing for the new center could not have been better.
Cox said the move made by school systems across Virginia toward creating classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds to address the need for childcare while boosting kindergarten readiness presented the opportunity for UVA Wise to begin offering teaching endorsements in those school-based early childhood programs. He added that the partnership with the YWCA only enhanced the opportunity.
“This was kind of a wonderful movement for us in that we had fantastic people really close by ready to hop in and put things together,” Cox said. “For me, I can put more certified teachers in classrooms, we’re addressing the need for childcare and we have the perfect training ground.
“For us, it was win-win in so many ways.”
Cox led UVA Wise through the proposal process last year, and the college is now ready to offer an endorsement for those age groups, which will help fill the pipeline with quality early-childhood teachers. What’s more, many of these new educators will help enrich communities around the region.
“So many school systems in Southwest Virginia use a grow-your-own approach where students want to stay in this area, and now we’re offering endorsements and career opportunities so they can stay in this area,” Cox said. “As they finish our program, they can go on and make a career of the same things, perhaps back in their hometowns.”
Students who are pursuing their teaching certification will be able to do internships and gain hands-on experience at the Little Cavs center, which will be managed and staffed by YWCA NETN and SWVA. Henry calls the YWCA the “gold standard in our region for childcare,” and is confident the learning experience for both the college students seeking certification and the young children who attend the center on a daily basis will be top-notch.
In addition to addressing short-term economic development needs by keeping parents in the workforce and preparing college students for a career in a high-demand field, the Little Cavs center also has the ability to provide a longterm economic development benefit by getting young children off to a fast start.
“The learning curve with children is absolutely amazing. It’s almost vertical,” Cox said. “So what we can do with combining play and learning, that development in the first couple years is unbelievable.”
Waugh added that 90 percent of brain development occurs by the age of 5, so early childhood programs have the ability to get kids to kindergarten ahead of the game. That sets them up for success on their individual academic journeys. In the long run, that will boost the economic development prospects for communities that have high-quality childcare.
Cox and Waugh both added that the center won’t be some sort of academic boot camp. Children learn best through play, and they will have ample opportunity to do that both in their classrooms and in three outdoor play environments. Naps are also highly encouraged.
Waugh has called Wise County home for 10 years, and she sees this center as a great model for other communities in Wise County and beyond.
“We have a model that can be replicated, but it does take an investment,” she said. “Obviously the investment here came from an appropriation through the legislature. That type of investment has to happen. It can be done.”
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Cox added “It’s hard to see something you’ve never seen before and envision what this would look like. Other communities may be thinking about this, now they’ve got a model to look at.”