HELENA — Staffing shortages are nothing new in the child care industry, but in Helena, a staffing shortage could mean less federal funding and fewer child care slots at Rocky Mountain Development Council’s Head Start program.
Since 1967, RMDC’s Head Start program has provided free early childhood education and family advocacy services to the Helena area. The federally-funded program is meant to serve children from a variety of situations—from families who are at or below the federal poverty level, to children in the foster care system, to children experiencing homelessness.
In Helena, the number of kids the program can serve is limited, not due to lack of need, but due to a staffing shortage.
“It’s really hard on families, because we serve the population in our community that maybe need it the most,” Rocky Head Start Program director Ashley Pena-Larsen said.
Rocky’s Head Start program has 176 slots for children, but right now, they’re operating at half of that because they just don’t have enough teachers and teacher’s aides. To be specific, they have 14 unfilled positions.
“It’s what they called a childcare crisis,” Pena-Larsen said.
If they can’t fill those positions, Pena-Larsen said they could lose slots permanently because staffing helps determine federal funding.
Losing those spots at Rocky’s Head Start program would put more stress on an already stressed industry.
“We’re not going to have the capacity that we even have now, which is not even the full need,” Child Care Connections provider services supervisor Brandi Thomas said.
According to the most recent data from a June 2022 study, there are 21,071 children in Montana who need child care but don’t have access to it. Thomas said it’s hard to get an exact measurement of the unmet need.
“It’s hard because there are so many people that have made due,” Thomas said.
Made due by working opposite shifts so someone is home with kids, having extended family pitch in, or even having one person leave the work force to stay home.
“We’ve seen a lot of parents either forced out or because the cost of child care is so high, it’s cheaper for them to drop a job from one of the parents,” Thomas said.
For some of the families the Rocky Head Start program can serve, that’s not possible—leaving them without options.
“Even if you qualify for the Best Beginnings scholarship through the state, you may still end up paying something, and that’s more than most families can afford,” Pena-Larsen said.
Some of the 14 positions the Rocky Head Start program has listed have been open for years.
“It’s been really hard, we have not gotten a good response,” Pena-Larsen said.
To stay competitive and attract applicants, Pena-Larsen said they’ve increased wages since the pandemic, and Pena-Larsen said they’re looking at another increase. They also offer benefits including health and dental, and even tuition assistance for staff working toward field-related degrees.
There are resources available to help people get into the child care industry as a provider or a teacher, like grants, training and licensing help.
“There’s kind of this army of us that are ready to help and get people going,” Thomas said. “We just need people to get going.”