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Child care

Teacher Silvia Castillo (center) reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher (left) and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First in late January. Kids First is one of the child care providers that has qualified to provide tuition assistance to low-income families through the Lincoln Littles fund.

A new fund created to help working families that don’t qualify for state child care subsidies but still can’t afford the cost of quality day care contributed $524,000 to help fill the gap.

The money — the first distribution from the child care fund in what will become an annual giving day — will go to 11 child care providers who have agreed to add a total of 85 spots for more children and use the money for tuition assistance for needy families.

Two years in the making, the Lincoln Littles Early Childcare Fund is a partnership between the Lincoln Community Foundation and the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.

About 78 percent of children live in homes where both parents work. And child care costs an average $1,000 a month for infants and almost as much for toddlers, said Michelle Suarez, who heads the early childhood education arm of Lincoln’s Prosper Lincoln initiative.

Families that live at or below the federal poverty level — $25,750 for a family of four — are eligible for subsidies that cover all child care costs.

Subsidies pay a portion of child care costs for families living at up to 130 percent of the poverty level — $32,628 for a family of four.

The Lincoln Littles fund will help families who make up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $51,500 for a family of four.

The fund raised $637,397 on Feb. 12 — Abraham Lincoln’s birthday — including $375,000 in seed money from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Kellogg Foundation. The same amount of seed money will be used to bolster the next annual giving day.

Child care providers are eligible if they have a rating of 2 or higher in the state Education Department’s “Step Up for Quality” rating system and serve at least one child from a low-income family that receives child care subsidies.

The state Education Department’s five-step rating system offers training and resources to interested child care businesses. Step 2 means those businesses have completed some training, among other things.

Providers that received scholarships must also keep records of the tuition assistance they provide and share other data that the fund organizers will use to evaluate the program.

The money was distributed based on the number of additional children the provider agreed to serve, the percentage of children in the child care program who are on state subsidies and the percentage of infant and toddlers they serve because their care is more expensive.

Each provider got a base $4,875 for each additional spot they created for more children, money for the additional percentage of infants and toddlers in their care. Additionally, those providers whose enrollment is at least 40 percent of children who receive state subsidies got an extra $15,000.

The grants ranged from $71,000 to Dimensions Education Program, which agreed to add 14 additional spots, to $25,000 for the Community Action’s Head Start program, which didn’t add children but does provide care before and after the school-based Head Start program, Suarez said.

The other providers receiving grants include: KinderCare Learning Center, Educare Lincoln, CEDARS, Children’s Place, World of Knowledge Child Development Center & Preschool, Westminster Preschool, St. Mark’s Preschool/KIDZONE, Fingerprints Child Development Center and Kids First Inc.

The providers have gotten half the money and will get the other half in six months.

Another goal of the Lincoln Littles initiative is to expand quality child care in Lincoln. Since the first giving day, the percent of providers participating in the Step Up to Quality program increased by 15 percent and others have moved up the steps in the program, Suarez said.

Betty Medinger, senior vice president for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, said another benefit is that child care providers are talking and networking more, working together to apply for the grants and sharing their wait lists with each other.

Communities across the state also have been talking with organizers about replicating similar programs in their communities, Medinger said.

The fund has $119,000 left for providers who want to apply.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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