For Foothills Forum
Rappahannock’s population trends have not been good news for the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC). In fact, there have been times in recent years when the nonprofit, which has been providing day care and education for young kids in the county since the 1970s, has faced the prospect of shutting down because it didn’t seem it would be able to sustain the enrollment needed to keep operating.
But now that its future is more promising — thanks to an infusion of preschoolers last fall when federal funding for Head Start was discontinued for the county’s elementary school — CCLC is taking a close look at how it might broaden its reach to address more of the needs of the community’s kids and families.
That’s the focus of a report presented at a public meeting Friday at the community hall of the Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville. It follows several months of research, including an online survey sent to about 425 families in the county and interviews with another two dozen people, by ChildFocus, a D.C.-based consulting firm.
The feedback about CCLC was largely positive, said Mary Bissell, who oversaw the project for ChildFocus, and people supported the center’s interest in reshaping its mission. The challenge, she added, is in determining how and how much the nonprofit should expand its services, and how to make them available to more families in the community.
One service frequently cited as a pressing need by county residents was better mental health care in the county, she noted.
“That was a huge theme that came through,” Bissell said.
The consensus, though, was that, at least in the short term, CCLC shouldn’t stray too far afield from what’s considered its “sweet spot” — early childhood education and development. Another recommendation is that the nonprofit should become more active in developing partnerships with other groups in the community—from county offices to local schools to churches — to maximize resources serving Rappahannock families.
Among those in the audience were County Administrator Garrey Curry and School District Superintendent Shannon Grimsley.
“Some felt there needs to be more outreach into the community for what CCLC offers,” said Bissell. “Some felt CCLC has made decisions in too much isolation without enough effort to build outside partnerships. The goal now is to kick off a different kind of conversation to engage more broadly.”
What criticism was made of CCLC in the survey and interviews had to do with the perception that it’s “pretty much a program for wealthier kids.” Some respondents noted that for middle-income families who don’t qualify for financial aid, the center’s tuition can be too costly. Another concern is that even for low-income families who do qualify for help, CCLC’s programs aren’t really an option because their jobs, often outside the county, can involve late and unpredictable work hours.
According to school district statistics, there are now 1,365 children in Rappahannock, and almost one-third of school-aged kids are classified as “disadvantaged.” A little more than 2 percent are English language learners.
Other needs mentioned in the ChildFocus report are an after-school program for children 12 to 14 and a suitable space where mental health professionals can meet with students and families while protecting their privacy.
After weighing more ambitious options, such as expanding CCLC’s programs to cover all ages of children and even developing a “one-stop” center for multiple services, such as health and mental health screening or child and family counseling, ChildFocus recommended a more incremental approach. It suggested phasing in new early childhood services, including child mental health, special education and child abuse and neglect prevention. Programming could include parenting classes and providing meeting spaces for community groups.
But the key to CCLC’s evolution, said Bissell, is a commitment to not go it alone, but rather to help shape a coalition of organizations in the community that together tackle the issues facing its children.
“Yes, it can be difficult to form coalitions. As humans, we naturally silo ourselves,” Bissell said. “But outreach is critical. You need regular, honest one-on-one conversations with members of the community. I’ve seen remarkable changes when those conversations happen.”