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Pike Market Preschool centers community in the face of the child care crisis

Posted February 16, 2022

Teacher sits on the floor reading a book to a child. Two children play with ramps behind her.

It’s an issue that long predates the pandemic: parents and guardians need consistent and affordable child care to be able to work, and child care providers need better benefits and livable wages. Decades of failing to fund early learning at the federal level have left both sides wildly undersupported, and the gap between access and affordability have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know that high-quality early learning is vital to building equitable and healthy neighborhoods. When child care is underinvested, young children lose out on valuable social-emotional development and lifelong wellness benefits. The Pike Place Market Foundation’s model for community health recognizes that well-being is linked to social determinants like education, economic stability, access to nutritious food, a safe neighborhood, and community support.  

Within our model, the Market Foundation works with partners like the Pike Market Child Care & Preschool to reduce barriers to child care that supports providers, enables parents to invest in their families, and contributes to a more enriched, thriving community.

“You can’t run an open economy like we are trying to support if there’s not someone there to help support those families,” explains Bua Sengkam, a teacher at the Preschool. “If you don’t have caregivers, it’s going to take away from people actually being able to work at the Market.” 

Child care at the intersection of poverty, race, and equity
A recent study from the U.S. Treasury finds that “the existing child care system in the United States, which relies on private financing … fails to adequately serve many families. This is not just happenstance, sound economic principles explain why relying on private money to provide child care is bound to come up short.” 

Many families earn too much to qualify for financial assistance, yet struggle with the cost of child care on top of meeting basic needs like food and housing. The staff working in child care professions also struggle, being historically underpaid and living close to the poverty line themselves so that other parents can work and make a living. “We need to be honest with ourselves about who really is subsidizing child care. It’s the providers,” says Kelly Davidson, Executive Director at the Preschool. “The providers are working at a job that carries a heavy, physical and emotional component that impacts people’s wellness.”

The disparities compound for families and caretakers of color who are disproportionately affected due to systemic inequities such as living in child care deserts, being historically barred from flexible high-paying job opportunities, lack of generational wealth, and more. Historically, care for infants and preschoolers in our country is laid at the feet of women of color, with insufficient compensation or support. 

The Market’s model for equitable early learning
Before the Preschool opened in 1982, it was common to see children and babies napping or playing under their parents’ vendor stalls in Pike Place Market. Then the community decided to open a preschool in the Market that could welcome all families, valuing diversity and a sense of belonging. Today, Pike Market Child Care & Preschool serves as a vital early learning environment where children receive excellent care, made-from-scratch meals, and build social and learning skills. Tuition is based on a sliding scale, and over 70% of enrolled families receive financial assistance so that every child, regardless of income, has the opportunity to feel valued and visible in their learning community. 

“There’s some families who are more economically stable, as some people may say, privileged, and there’s some families who are coming here that are unhomed, “says Bua, whose daughter is a current student and has grown up in the program. “But yet, every child is completely treated equally… I always felt that type of injustice when I was going to school, but my daughter does not have to feel that way at all.”

Long committed to social justice and equity, the Preschool implements anti-bias education and has an Equity Change Team exploring the intersection of race, gender, and income inequity to promote institutional change to serve the school community better. 

“Children benefit from being around different kinds of families,” said Kelly. “The blended, inclusive nature of our program is important, and very reflective of the Market community to say, everybody has a place here. Children experience that there is a way for us to be our unique selves and in community together.”

The Pike Place Market Foundation’s consistent and unrestricted funding helps support the Preschool in carrying out its values, even amidst new challenges brought on by the pandemic. “The gap between what the state or city can pay and what it actually costs is what the Market Foundation covers,” explains Kelly. While many centers nationwide were forced to exclude families on financial assistance, the Preschool prioritized their longtime families, retained current staff, increased their wages, and provided much-needed stability for families and teachers alike.

Unpredictable disruptions in the age of Omicron
Despite the Preschool’s strong commitment to its mission and model, the effects of the pandemic still take a heavy toll on both parents and staff. With each new variant and spike in cases, the Preschool is forced into another round of closures, and parents scramble to make new arrangements.  “The CDC recommends kids between two to five wear their masks. And they try, but not while they’re eating, not while they’re sleeping,” said Kelly. “It does put our teachers at risk, they’re around unvaccinated kids.” A positive COVID case can mean abrupt closures for potentially extended periods. 

On the families’ side, sudden closures can be frustrating for parents and guardians to anticipate and plan for. If their child gets sick or school gets canceled, some can’t afford to keep them home. “It is really hard to find someone to care for your child, especially if you’re like I am as a single parent,” says Bua, “If a kid’s class closes, parents miss out on work.” 

The gap between the high cost parents are paying for care, and the actual cost of care from providers, can often pit them against each other instead of pointing to the larger systemic issues. “I understand it’s frustrating. But these are the times we’re living in, and we’re dealing with the most vulnerable population,” says Bua. “In the long run, it’s really about being a community and having that respect and having the care to really understand.” 

Building a brighter future for our children
Until there is infrastructure change at the federal and state level, the Market community will continue to foster our own community-based model that centers children, families, and caregivers. “Every family wants the best care and education for their children,” says Kelly. “when a community makes sure that happens for every child, we are all stronger.”

“In order to have that space, we need to have the money to hire these teachers that will best suit the type of learning and community building you want for your kids”, says Bua. “Know that we’re trying our best to support you, and try to help you grow your dream of what it means to see equality and social justice within our community. It’s up to all of us to give each other that patience… And put that value in action.” 

Be part of a more equitable future where every child has the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential, join us in:

Help contribute to our model for a healthy community!


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