TRAVERSE CITY — A waiver from the state opened up opportunities for more families to take advantage of free childcare within the Northwest Education Services intermediate school district, but many programs in the region still have a few open spots.
About 16 Great Start Readiness Program and three Head Start early childhood program centers in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Kalkaska counties have immediate openings for 3-and 4-year-old children. That includes programs in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim counties.
The ISD does not operate these programs on its own, rather through subcontractors — 70 percent of which are local school districts and the other 30 percent are community-based organizations.
Partners include Traverse City Area Public Schools, Kalkaska Public Schools, Elk Rapids Schools, Kingsley Area Schools, Benzie County Central Schools, Northwestern Michigan College’s Children’s Learning Center and the Kalkaska Memorial Health Center.
GSRP is a state-funded free preschool program for students who are 4 years old by Dec. 1, while Head Start programs are federally funded free preschool or early childhood programs for kids zero-to-5 years old.
To qualify for GSRP, families typically need their household income to be at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, but North Ed received a waiver from the Michigan Department of Education in October to accept families with household incomes equal to or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. These waivers are given on a case-by-case basis at an ISD’s request.
Under this new provision, a family of four with an annual income of $83,250 or less would be eligible for the free GSRP centers run in part by North Ed, according to a press release from North Ed.
Because of this change, there may be many families in the region who would qualify for these programs but don’t realize it.
“Historically, pre-pandemic, these would have been filled slots,” said Northwest Education Services Childhood Services Supervisor Yvonne Donohoe.
By September of any given school year, these programs would be close to 100 percent full, and most would have waitlists, Donohoe said. Not all of North Ed’s programs have openings, but there are a lot more openings this fall than usual.
Donohoe said she is aware of this being an issue in other areas as well.
The openings could also be caused by the fact that some parents are still not working as a result of the pandemic, so they can look after their children on their own, or because they still have lingering fears about COVID-19, Donohoe said.
Amber Wilson, the early childhood coordinator for Benzie County Central School and Frankfort-Elberta Area School, said there is one opening for GSRP at the Lake Ann Elementary program and two at the Frankfort program in their preschool classrooms.
The programs in Benzie and Frankfort did see a dip in enrollment during the pandemic, and this year they’ve seen an increase and are almost back to normal, Wilson said. Her programs received more GSRP spots than they had previously — up to 42 from 30 — so that may also be a reason why they have a few open spots this year, she said.
Leelanau Children’s Center runs two classrooms that are blended with GSRP students and students who pay tuition — most of whom are 3 years old, and too young to qualify for GSRP. Typically, they have three classrooms, but this year, they have just two because of low enrollment, said Molly Grosvenor, the program director.
Grosvenor said her program plans to have three classes again next year, but the window to open a third has closed, so they actually do not have open spots for parents to apply to for this school year. However, parents can reach out and get a tour of the facility and register for next year at the Leelanau Children’s Center as early as March of 2023.
Since childcare can be expensive and GSRP is free, there is commonly a misconception that parents who can pay for child care are taking someone else’s spot, Grosvenor said. But, at least at the Leelanau Children’s Center, “there’s enough spots to go around,” Grosvenor said.
Families also can qualify for these programs based on other factors besides their income. A child’s disabilities, behavioral concerns, language barriers, abuse or neglect, and environmental risks can be taken into account when determining eligibility and they may be eligible for over-income placement.
Parents interested in applying for one of these centers can go to Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s website and fill out an application. Or, parents can reach out to the ISD to find a program with an opening in their area as well.
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