The issue: The need for consistent, quality childcare in rural Minnesota continues to rise.

Local impact: The state is focused on finding ways to assist communities most in need.

Seated around several tables, a group of young children cut, glued and talked.

Their morning task was to create a giraffe.

Among those offering assistance to those children was Jim Koppel, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Koppel traveled to Franklin July 20 to visit with children, staff and community leaders about the Cedar Mountain Cougar Cub Childcare Center and to learn more about the model being used to address a growing need especially in rural areas of the state – childcare.

The Cougar Cub Childcare Center, which opened this past December, currently is serving 28 children from infants through preschool-aged children, and, according to Jody Rose, the center’s director, the center has the capacity to serve up to 42 children.

For the Franklin community and the surrounding area, the center is a great asset, as it is helping meet the needs of families who are in need of a place where their children can go while they work.

As more and more family-based childcare programs close, the need to have alternative options rises, and Koppel said the center in Franklin stands out a model others can follow as they look to find a solution to their childcare needs. 

As assistant commissioner for DHS, Koppel said one of his roles is in working with childcare programming across the state.

“Without consistent, quality childcare, children often struggle and are not prepared to enter Kindergarten, and parents often are unable to go to school or work as a result,” said Koppel in a recent press release announcing his visit to the Franklin site. “We need to help ensure children are well cared for and educated in safe, stable, nurturing learning environments.”

While reading “Giraffe’s Can’t Dance by Giles Andrea and Guy Parker-Rees to children at the center, Koppel said one of his first jobs was at a childcare center. He later expounded on that role, adding things have certainly changed in the 40 years since he performed those tasks.

Much more is expected of those working in childcare, whether it is in a center environment or in a family setting, as parents desire more education to be offered to their children and increased demands and regulations are placed on those who serve in the role of caring for children.

Working in the childcare industry is not easy, said Koppel, but he said DHS is working to find good solutions that can help keep people who are in childcare to stay and entice others to consider it all the while providing that quality care parents want. One of the challenges facing those working in childcare, as well as families is the need for more infant spots.

Jody Rose, Cougar Cub Childcare Center director, said the center in Franklin currently has a waiting list for babies. That is the case statewide, said Koppel.

In fact, anecdotal data continues to offer examples of people who have put off having children because they know childcare will be a challenge.

Koppel also talked about the state’s quality rating and improvement system, which is known as Parent Aware. Those childcare entities that go through a year-long process that includes a facility inspection as well as training and approval of curriculum.

The Cedar Mountain Childcare Center is currently going through that process. Once a site has been approved as Parent Aware certified, the name of that facility goes on a list that can be accessed by families looking for a place to take their children.

For many families, childcare is as much about affordability as it is access, said Koppel, and through the Minnesota Department of Education those families that meet income eligibility standards can apply for scholarship funding to help cover childcare costs.

The issue, said Koppel is that there are far more eligible families across the state than there are dollars in the scholarship program. Koppel said he has been working with the state legislature to try and get more funding for that program and others that can help families cover their costs.

This year as part of the session the state tax credits program to help families with childcare expenses was expanded.

“We are thankful for the scholarships and other financial supports for our low income families. However, there are many families in rural Minnesota that miss those income guidelines by a few thousand dollars, or there is not enough money allocated to help those who qualify,” said Rose. “Those families struggle to pay for quality childcare, because they cannot afford it and often times end up staying at home with their children instead of going to work.”

Koppel said those who are involved with addressing the issues involved in helping meet the needs of childcare in the state have the same goal – ensuring children are well cared for and have a healthy development.

With adequate funding, Koppel said the number of families receiving subsidies could more than double, and that, he added, is what should happen.