The Littlest Among Us

Research points the way to high-quality childcare
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Tiffani Bowen drops her daughter Allexis at OSU’s laboratory preschool before heading off to class at Linn-Benton Community College.

Clutching a book about Clifford the Big Red Dog, 4-year-old Allexis clambers onto a sofa in the Library Corner. Her mom, Tiffani Bowen, jots the child’s name on a sign-in sheet at the Child Development Laboratory in OSU’s Hallie Ford Center and then sits down beside her. Bowen’s sheltering arm, sun-bronzed and tattooed with a delicate blue butterfly, folds around “Lexi” as they page through the storybook. Clearly, both mother and child relish this quiet moment stolen from a hectic morning. Soon, Bowen will kiss Lexi goodbye and hurry off to her 10 o’clock class at Linn-Benton Community College.

A Living Laboratory — See the Video

Children have fun learning about nutrition at OSU’s Child Development Laboratory.

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Leaving her daughter is never easy. Yet Bowen knows that the little girl in the gray pleated skirt and snow-white bobby socks will get top-notch care at the Child Development Lab, a model preschool and research facility where more than half the slots are reserved for low-income families. The Oregon Head Start Prekindergarten Program pays for Lexi’s care and education at OSU, and also helps Bowen with daycare expenses — including babysitting at her sister’s house for Bowen’s 10-year-old twins — while she earns her college degree. The lab preschool helps out, too, with scholarships and social services.

“I couldn’t afford to bring Lexi to preschool otherwise,” the young mother says. “I’m watching my little girl advance. Her vocabulary is like night and day since she started last year. Something’s clicking.”

Plenty of Oregon parents aren’t so lucky. Childcare that is both excellent and economical is hard to come by. Kids who receive high-quality care in settings staffed by well-educated, well-paid teachers have a running start on critical language and social skills. Kids who don’t will face an uphill climb. In fact, studies show that the quality of early childhood experience can affect the trajectory of an entire life, says OSU researcher Roberta “Bobbie” Weber.

“If children’s needs are not met appropriately in the first four years, we know for sure that they come to kindergarten widely disadvantaged,” says Weber, a research associate in the Family Policy Program of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. “For healthy development, children need to be in a consistent relationship with a nurturing caregiver.”

That’s where OSU comes in. Researchers in the College of Health and Human Sciences are delving into topics across a wide spectrum, from soaring costs and teacher shortages to worker compensation and child wellness. With support from the Barbara Emily Knudson Endowment, Weber and her colleagues are helping inform and guide better outcomes for Oregon’s children on the policy level by examining topics such as subsidies for parents, incentives for teachers and childcare gaps in rural communities.

Delving Into Wellness

Children’s physical well-being is critical to their academic and emotional growth.  Yet for an alarming number of preschoolers, too much sitting and too much snacking have led to premature weight problems.

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Launching a Life

Tiffani Bowen exemplifies the power of programs that give parents and kids a leg-up to fiscal and emotional security. At 27, Bowen has already been a mom for a decade. She left high school early to raise her twin girls. Six years later, Allexis came along. The single mom, without a dependable partner to rely on, was determined to find independent financial footing. So she enrolled full-time at Linn-Benton. With comprehensive support from the OSU lab preschool — including home visits from family services workers and regular meetings with a family advocate — Bowen has hit her stride. She regrets falling short of the 4.0 GPA she has doggedly pursued in her dental assistant program. But she concedes that a 3.8 isn’t all that bad.

“I rely on myself now,” she says with a note of defiance. “I don’t need a man. I’m mom, dad, everything to my children.”

For a college student raising three kids alone, self-reliance means shouldering the roles of breadwinner, bottle-washer and babysitter.

“The last three years have been extremely tough,” Bowen admits, dropping her bravado. “Some nights, I’ve cried myself to sleep.”

Stories like this are what drive Bobbie Weber’s commitment to research-based policymaking. By discovering the factors that impede vulnerable families, she says, well-designed studies can suggest workable solutions. As lead researcher or co-investigator on nearly 30 studies conducted over the past 15 years by the OSU-based Oregon Childcare Research Partnership, Weber has captured national, state and local data on everything from system accountability to supply and demand. This statistical lens on Oregon’s three key childcare benchmarks — affordability, availability and quality — gives legislators the hard numbers they need to make sound laws in support of children and families.

“The OSU Family Policy Program provides invaluable guidance and support to policymakers and program administrators,” says Tom Olsen, administrator of the Oregon Child Care Division in Salem. “In particular, Bobbie Weber’s original research and exhaustive knowledge of the literature has been critical in the development of Oregon’s early-childhood care and education system. Her contributions to the well-being of children and families, in Oregon and nationally, can’t be overstated.”

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Mother and daughter catch a few precious moments together after the morning rush of getting off to school.

Staggering Cost

Today’s No. 1 issue is affordability, Weber reveals in the partnership’s 2008 report, Child Care and Education in Oregon and Its Counties. Astoundingly, in 2008, a year of childcare cost more than a year of public college in most parts of the state — an average of about $9,800 for a toddler in a childcare center versus an average of $5,900 for a college student in the Oregon University System. Between 2004 and 2008, childcare costs increased about 20 percent.

Families in the lowest income bracket spend nearly 30 percent of their income on childcare. More daunting still is the chunk for a single, minimum-wage worker: almost 60 percent of total income.

Despite the staggering cost, many poor parents fail to use state subsidies. To find out why, Weber has studied Oregon’s subsidy program for low-income parents. Too much red tape discourages eligible families from seeking financial assistance, she found. One big hang-up: Families were forced to reapply every three months, filling out a mountain of forms and handing in tons of documentation. In fact, Oregon had the shortest subsidy spells in a five-state study of subsidy duration. Findings such as this led the Legislature to revamp the program in 2007. Now parents submit paperwork every six months, cutting the hassle factor in half. And the payoff for participants has improved, as well. Oregon ranked in the bottom three states for generosity of subsidies. That, too, has been rectified in Oregon law. Now the state ranks near the top.

Another recent report, a 2008 literature review funded by the Oregon Community Foundation, looked at the education and training patchwork for childcare workers — a crazy quilt of workshops that are poorly integrated from place to place. Too, credits often don’t transfer across colleges and universities. Facing a “crisis-level shortage” of childcare workers, especially in rural areas, Oregon is in dire need of more “articulation” across higher-ed programs to pave an easier path for early-childhood educators seeking degrees, Weber argues.

Meanwhile, her studies of successful programs in other states recently contributed to creation of a system to encourage childcare workers to gain more education and advance professionally — an educational award program. Aptly named EQUIP (Education and Quality Investment Partnership), this new public-private program builds on the Oregon Registry, a repository of documents for education and training of childcare and early-education professionals. EQUIP also provides incentives to achieve educational milestones in the childcare field. With federal stimulus and foundation dollars, it issues cash awards to workers as they attain professional-development benchmarks.

“We’re quite excited,” says Weber. “Oregon has never done anything like this.”

Seeding Self-Reliance

Tiffani Bowen is mere months from launching a new life for herself and her girls. Without family-friendly programs and policies, the epiphany that awakened her drive for autonomy would have been a pipe dream.

“When I was in high school, I never considered going to college,” Bowen says. “Education’s important in my life now. I want that for my daughters, too. I want them to be confident. I want them to be able to rely on themselves.”

For more information on the OSU Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families:www.hhs.oregonstate.edu/halliefordcenter

For more information on the Family Policy Program:www.hhs.oregonstate.edu/hdfs/hdfs-family-policy-program

To support research in the OSU Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families, contact the Oregon State University Foundation.

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