Grand Isle’s only child care center is closing amid growing need
"It makes me very sad,” Elaine Chasse says, sitting at a picnic table outside Learning Adventure, the early childhood education center she opened on this quiet, tree-lined lot in Grand Isle more than two decades ago.
Inside, the schoolhouse is busy — but it’s boxes, not backpacks, that are being carried to and from the doors.
Learning Adventure closed down last week, leaving the town of 2,100 on the Lake Champlain islands without a licensed child care center.
There are three other licensed centers on the Islands, plus several programs available in schools and homes, but “that’s not a lot,” Chasse says of the local child care options. “To think that’s something that’s not going to be available to the children of Grand Isle, who deserve it — to the families of Grand Isle, who deserve it — it’s really sad for me.”
Early childhood education is a growing need across the state: Before the pandemic, more than 60% of infants likely to need child care did not have access to a regulated program, according to a report by Let’s Grow Kids, a child care advocacy group.
In Grand Isle County specifically, nearly 80% of infants likely to need child care have no access to a regulated program, according to a 2020 Let’s Grow Kids analysis. As of 2019, the county needed about 90 additional child care spaces for kids under age 5.
Early childhood educators are in short supply, too, a result of the industry’s low wages, according to the report. At the start of 2020, Vermont had a shortage of more than 2,000 lead early childhood educators, a total that likely has increased since.
“The concept of workforce development is talked about for lots of other kinds of fields,” said Janet McLaughlin, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children. “But people don’t talk about it the same way, often, for early childhood education.”
Filling the gaps
Chasse said her decision to close Learning Adventure, which served children ages 3 through 12, came down to staffing. She was never able to replace two longtime staff members who gave their notices, one about two years ago and one last fall.
The center’s remote location made it difficult to attract qualified candidates, she said, with many opting instead for positions in Chittenden or Franklin counties. Learning Adventure is on Route 314, a few minutes north of the Grand Isle ferry terminal.
Chasse also runs a business that provides training, consulting and coaching to other early childhood educators. With a reduced staff at Learning Adventure, she said, it became too difficult to run both operations successfully.
“I vowed a long time ago that if I couldn’t maintain the quality of care that I come to expect of early-ed programs, then I wouldn’t be able to continue doing it,” she said.
Chasse opened her first early childhood education program in 1992 at the Grand Isle School, where she served a mix of students on individualized education plans, as well as children from outside the school whose families paid tuition.
By 1994, demand had grown, and Chasse’s was the only licensed child care center on the islands at the time. She opened a second facility in today’s Learning Adventure building, offering an additional prekindergarten program and after-school care.
By the end of the decade, the Grand Isle School needed her classroom space, Chasse said, so she consolidated her services into just the current building.
Stacey Dumas said her kids attended Chasse’s program in the 1990s, and Chasse “was just fantastic.” Dumas was a single mother balancing full-time work and college, and for a time Chasse looked after the kids while Dumas was at her classes, she recalled.
“That’s what I mean, above and beyond what most child care providers would ever do,” Dumas said. “And never asked for a dime for it. Just did it and was happy to help.”
Two of Dumas’ grandchildren, too, attended Learning Adventure until it closed last week. She said she’s worried her 4-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, could now lose some of the social skills she’s gained at Learning Adventure ahead of kindergarten.
The family has had a hard time finding another child care provider that fits their needs, Dumas said, partly because there are limited local options. The entire family works on the islands, she said, and it’s not practical to drive the kids off-island every day.
“Having that day care option right here in our own community, close to home — it’s so important for the working families, and so important for the kids, too,” she said. “That has built a really solid foundation for our town, and I just think it’s a horrible loss.”
Chasse said some families who are no longer able to attend Learning Adventure have found care options at another center nearby, such as in South Hero. Others have made arrangements to keep their children home, she said, which is always challenging but could be especially so as employers revert to their pre-pandemic policies.
“When Covid restrictions are lifted, will they be as supportive of families who can’t find child care and need to work from home with their child?” Chasse said. “I don’t know. I would imagine, maybe not.”
Nationwide, early childhood educators are the lowest-paid graduates of any college degree program, according to the Let’s Grow Kids report.
Chasse said Learning Adventure subsidized the child care costs for some of its families, which made its programs more accessible but limited what she could pay her staff. She and her colleagues could only work there, she said, because their partners had jobs with health insurance and that paid a livable wage.
“We all found joy in it. We became a team that worked really well together,” Chasse said. “Because we were together so long, we didn’t have to figure each other out — so we could put all of our energy and effort into the children, the families and the program.”
A staffing crisis
Sherry Carlson, chief programs officer of Let’s Grow Kids, said access to child care is better in Vermont than in many states. But the state needs “a long-term strategy to build child care capacity,” she said, including efforts to recruit more educators.
Part of the issue in Grand Isle County — and other rural parts of Vermont — is that child care has, historically, been provided out of family homes, McLaughlin said. These providers aren’t retiring more quickly, she said, but they often aren’t being replaced.
Advocates point to H.171, a law signed this month by Gov. Phil Scott, as a first step toward bolstering the state’s early childhood education industry. The law includes $2.5 million in financial incentives for early childhood educators, including scholarships and loan repayment assistance that will operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
H.171 also puts $5.5 million next fiscal year toward Vermont’s child care subsidy program for low-income families, which will allow the state to expand eligibility and lower copays. In the long term, the law sets a goal for Vermont families to pay no more than 10% of their income on child care — though actually implementing that would require significantly more investment, VTDigger has reported.
“That’s just a start,” Carlson said. “The other thing that is needed is more investment so that those who work with young children in child care programs can receive a compensation that matches the importance and the level of preparation for their work.”
by Shaun Robinson