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Johnna Schultz says the library should be a “catalyst for change” in Effingham. She’s helped form a group of people—and a state-organized initiative—to help bring new childcare options to Effingham.

Effingham is one of the first five communities in Illinois to participate in a state-wide program aimed at expanding access to childcare programs and developing new ones. This could address an ongoing problem facing Effingham’s parents: the “slot gap.”

The slot gap is a term used to describe the difference between the number of children who might need childcare and the number of theoretically available slots across all childcare options: daycare centers, Head Start programs, licensed in-home daycare, and other options.

In Effingham County, there are about 1,400 slots for kids who haven’t yet entered kindergarten, despite the fact there are 2,600 kids in the county, according to data from the Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map. That’s 45% of kids who can’t receive childcare. For the most vulnerable children who come from the area’s poorest families, the figure jumps up to 61%.

But Illinois Action for Children, a nonprofit aimed at addressing the needs of children around the state, has partnered with the Governor’s Office for Early Childhood Development to help communities like Effingham build up knowledge and make a plan to close the slot gap and bring in new childcare options.

The Community Based Planning program kicked off on Jan. 25 with a meeting of stakeholders from various groups around Effingham.

Members of this planning group come from a variety of organizations, all working in childcare in some way. These groups include the Effingham Public Library, various daycare providers, Effingham County Health Department, Effingham Unit 40 School District, St. Anthony Hospital, and the county government among others.

This group is mostly made up of a combination of two earlier informal groups led by Meghan Rewers of Crisis Nursery and Samantha Weidner of the health department.

“We invited other people that we wanted to have a seat at the table, like our elected officials,” said Johnna Schultz, Assistant Director of the Effingham Public Library.

Though Schultz said that it’s a collaborative effort, she has been central in bringing people together for this project.

“This group is by no means an end,” Schultz said. “I want this conversation to move forward.”

Community Based Planning is a methodology of addressing complex issues which relies on bringing existing community leaders together to collaborate in identifying solutions.

“How can groups coordinate together?” asked Brittain Ayres in an interview. She’s a program’s manager with Illinois Action for Children who is helping lead this project.

“At the end of the project, the goal is to have the community have a plan,” she said.

This project is part of a series of programs funded by a $3.7 million grant from the federal government that the state received in 2019. The grant comes from the Department of Health and Human Services and is earmarked for particular programs to address needs related to childcare for children up to age five. Other programs the state is doing through this grant include workforce development, strengthening existing programs, and collecting and sharing data.

The Jan. 25 meeting was mostly introductory, with contacts being exchanged and a groundwork being laid. The next step in the process is to identify what Effingham’s childcare leaders need to know in order to shrink the slot gap.

“The next step is that we start to draft a facilitated support plan,” said Kate Ritter, a consultant for Illinois Action for Children. This will include ideas for workshops, traninings, and which audiences need what support throughout the year-long process of creating a community-based plan.

Once that is drafted, the planning group that met in January will reconvene to discuss and reach a consensus about how to move forward.

Having communities plan their own solutions instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach is a central point of this endeavor.

“One thing I really love about this project is that it’s tailored to each community,” Ayres said. “One of the key values we have at Illinois Action for children and as part of this state-wide effort is that the parents and providers all have a role.”

As the project goes on, Ayres says that more of the community will become involved, through things like interviews, surveys, or focus groups, but that the planning group needs to make decisions about that together.

“You can have stakeholders as experts,” she said. “But parents are the ones with lived experience.”

Those stakeholders include government and private groups, though almost all of the actual providers of childcare in Effingham are private. Unit 40 schools, however, do have a small preschool program.

Chelle Beck, Curriculum Director for the district, said she’s worked to expand the district’s offerings through “Preschool for All” grants available from the state. Though the district used to offer preschool to a wide array of students, after the state reformed how it funded education, Unit 40 cut back to only offering preschool to students with special needs.

“Our plan is that every chance we get, when the state opens that grant cycle again, we’ll try to be able to open up more slots,” Beck said.

She added that she is excited to continue to work heavily with the community based planning group.

Elizabeth Huston, the Effingham County Board’s newest member, also attended the first meeting of the planning group.

“They were trying to find how to get Effingham County more childcare,” she said.

Huston said talk at the meeting seemed focused on the city, in no small part because of its central location and because many people come to the city during the day to work. Still, she said the issue is prevalent throughout the county.

“I live in Altamont and it’s hard to find day care,” she said. Though she saw the way the issue manifests throughout the area, she added that she isn’t sure what the county government can do to help the cause right now.

“It’s a work in progress. The childcare issue is not one you’re gonna fix in a year’s time,” she said.

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com