Preschoolers played with a robot in the hallway outside of their classroom at the Huggins Early Education Center at Fresno State. They chased it and laughed as it rolled down the long corridor.
Most of the parents of these kids are students at Fresno State. Brittney Randolph, program director for the Huggins Center, said 70 percent of the slots are set aside for students, and having the center on campus can be really beneficial.
“We had a parent say her GPA was so low before she was able to find care for her child because not every professor is going to allow you to bring the child to class because it can be a distraction,” Randolph said. “Once they find secure childcare it’s easier for them to be successful in their classes.”
The students that get in are lucky. On average, 200 parents a year get a spot at the center, and for most of them it’s free, which can lift a huge financial burden off parents.
But, what if you don’t have this option?
Several studies point to many communities in the San Joaquin Valley as childcare deserts, which means there aren’t enough childcare providers for the amount of kids who need them.
In the San Joaquin Valley, available preschool slots are scarce, and the population of infants to 2-year-olds is expected to climb 5 to 10 percent by 2030, according to 2018 research from University of California, Berkeley and American Institutes of Research.
In Merced County, there are 5,076 available slots at licensed childcare facilities compared to the 11,792 children ages 0-5 in the county, according to data from the 2019 Merced County Early Learning and Care Needs Assessment.
UC Merced is working to improve childcare options through its Extension Program. Recently UC Merced Extension partnered with Chowchilla High School to start the program. Kevin Reimer, a developmental psychologist at UC Merced and instructor for the university's extension program, created the curriculum, which is focused on child development.
“We put that together to address the issues that are most acute, which is the entry level,” he said. “Those entry level childcare workers are extremely hard to find.”
Juniors and seniors at Chowchilla High School can take a year-long class that’s broken up into four college courses. This is the first school in the Valley to pilot the program, and he said the program benefits students just as much as the community.
“By bringing the UC to a place like Chowchilla High, we’re kind of trying to break down that fear of the unknown, particularly for first generation Latinx learners who wouldn’t ordinarily be thinking about college necessarily if their family isn’t oriented to those kinds of post graduation options,” he said.
By the end of the class, students have 12 transferable college units and if they complete volunteer hours they can apply for an early childhood associate teacher permit. Then students can qualify to work in a daycare with infants to 5 year olds.
Reimer said taking this class also gets teenagers thinking about a career in child development.
“What would it mean if I were to come back to Chowchilla with a degree from Stan State in child development and start my own daycare? Planting those seeds is a really significant privilege with high school kids because they’re open,” Reimer said. “You never know where they’re going to go and how that may come back.”
At least one junior who was in the program this year wants to work with moms and infants. Jalyn Richmond wants to be a midwife or a nurse practitioner, and until she goes off to college she plans to get a job at a preschool thanks to what she’s learned so far.
The 16-year-old said she especially enjoyed learning about “prenatal care in the beginning and learning about pregnancy to where it starts and all the way when you give birth and learning how that happens and how the female body changes.”
At the end of the class students also get hands-on experience. They create their own lesson plans and teach it to a classroom.
“I thought teachers had it so easy like they just had to plan stuff out,” Richmond says. “I stressed when I had to create my lesson plan cause you really got to work with them (kids). You really got to think like they think.”
This program is also expected to be implemented at Orestima High School in Newman, Mariposa High School, Golden Valley High School in Merced and Le Grand High School.
One reason there aren't enough care providers in the San Joaquin Valley, Remier said, is because during the recession many facilties closed. Many daycares were operated out of people's houses, he said, and when people lost their homes they also lost their businesses.
In Fresno County, there are 570 home daycares compared to 301 childcare centers, according to KidsData.org. Kern County has 670 home daycares and 185 childcare centers. Merced County has 198 home daycares and 79 childcare centers.
Out of the Valley counties Kings has the fewest childcare facilities, 26 centers and 107 home daycares.
Dr. Pei-Ying Wu, an early childhood education professor at Fresno State and the chair of the Huggins Center, said it’s especially hard for parents with infants and toddlers to find childcare. Most teachers prefer to work with older kids, because childcare providers who work with younger kids get paid less.
“I would say a lot of our teachers are underpaid and society does not treat them as they need to be treated,” she said.
It's also beneficial for the kids to start going to daycare or preschool before they reach kindergarten, Wu said. Children start to learn how to collaborate and communicate with their peers, "which is so important for their later learning."
"Zero to 5 is a critical period for a child to develop a lot of skills and also for their brain to fully develop," Wu added.
Only nine percent of infants and toddlers in Fresno and Tulare counties are enrolled in a licensed childcare facility, the study from UC Berkeley found.
Cindy Alejandrez is a sixth-grade teacher and a single mom of two toddlers. She lives in Merced, and most days her kids go with her when she has appointments and errands. In the summer her kids don’t go to daycare, she said, and her life revolves around finding childcare for them.
“I’ve gone to places where people seem to get upset that I bring my kids,” Alejandrez, 32, said. “Going to a public office building and other parent places, you can tell when places are meant for kids and not. Like this place, they were very kind but there were no kid's toys.”
But, that’s something Alejandrez can’t do much about, she said. Most of her expenses go toward rent and daycare, she said. Although she wants to spend as much time with her kids as possible, it would be nice to leave them at home when she has chiropractor appointments.
“They’re going to adjust my back and then I’m probably going to have to pick one of them up,” she said. “And then it’s like, ‘Why did I even go to the chiropractor?’ But then I can’t miss the appointment.”
“It sucks. That’s kind of a plain way to put it, but it just kind of sucks. It’s what I have to do.”