Melissa Pepper

Melissa Pepper

“Mom, I’m not going to college, because I don’t want to get married.”

“When I die, I’m going to Kevin.”

“I want to be a teenager so I can use scissors.”

These words are just a sampling of the many revelations that come out of my four-year old son’s mouth each morning before school. He’s a preschooler in the "Caterpillar Room" at our church preschool, and for the most part, he enjoys learning. He loves the color orange, Spider-Man and invading his baby brother’s personal space with loads of hugs, kisses and the occasional eye poke.

Watching my son become a little person with likes, dislikes and wise remarks has been one of the greatest joys of motherhood, but it’s not without its stressors. Talk to me some other time about potty training, for instance. And the ever-present "mom guilt" is hard, made more difficult by scheduling challenges each week. Our preschool is offered from 8:40 to 11:40 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. While that is probably an appropriate amount of time for a little human to be in a school setting, it’s really hard on me as a working mom.

Leaving work in the middle of the day to pick him up and take him to his in-home daycare provider is a luxury I have for my job, but many working moms don’t have the same flexibility.

In the Quad Cities, preschool for four-year old children is free (yes, free!) — but only for 10 hours each week.

What are parents supposed to do with the rest of those working hours? The majority of preschools in the Quad Cities do not provide wraparound care.

Preschool may seem like a nice-to-have, but research shows just how critical preschool is for preparing kids for kindergarten. If children aren’t prepared to learn when they enter grade school, they are less likely to catch up later and less likely to graduate from high school. Census figures from 2018 say that only 44.3 percent of 3- and 4-year olds in the Quad Cities attend preschool; among low-income 3- and 4-year olds, that number is 26.3 percent.

So what can we as a community do about it? I don’t pretend to be an expert on this topic, but as a mom who’s in the thick of it, solutions to these problems are vitally important — not just for the kids but to the employees of all of the institutions here in the Quad Cities.

Coming off of the weekend of the Big Table discussions, I know as a community we can probably come together to solve these problems as they relate to funding, access, and transportation:

1. Daycare centers that offer wraparound care with preschool face funding challenges, so increasing daycare center funding is a good place to start. This will allow current centers to pay competitive wages to qualified teachers and improve access.

2. We need to increase access. There are 16,813 children age five and under in working families in Scott and Rock Island counties, but there is only capacity for 13,594 in qualified care centers.

3. Transportation from preschool to in-home or daycare centers is difficult for me (and I admit coming from a place of privilege), so imagine the burden it places on single-parent households or families with less means.

If you aren’t sure how the daycare/preschool problem personally affects you because you don’t have a preschooler living at your house, let me put it this way: If I didn’t have preschool drop off and pick up, I would gain back two working hours per day, which equates to 270 hours during the nine-month school year. Businesses in the United States lose $3 billion annually due to employee absenteeism resulting from childcare challenges. Now, before you call my boss to report my absences, I make up for that time with after-hours and weekend work. Having a flexible work arrangement helps ensure my son has preschool, but there is that trade-off. Families without this flexibility may have to do without preschool altogether.

Preschool is a chance for every kid in the Quad Cities to grow skills necessary to succeed. For my little preschooler, success means being Spider-Man. Let’s all be superheroes for our Quad Cities kids and help preschool be the end game for all.

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Melissa Pepper is president of Total Solutions and founder of Lead(h)er. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column featuring local writers, appears on Tuesdays.