Research Team to Study Child Care in Rural Pennsylvania

April 21, 2009

It’s common knowledge that quality child care is a crucial factor in a child’s future success in school.

Gerald Zahorchak, secretary of education in Pennsylvania, “One of the strongest arguments for quality early education is that it can help children who would otherwise enter school without the necessary skills…bridge the achievement gap before it even begins.”

And a recent statewide report by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning indicates children affected by risk factors such as low-income families are more likely to fail in school. However, the report also indicates these same children can overcome the challenges if they have quality early education experiences before the age of 5. The study also noted that only 22 percent of children under 5 participate in state and/or federally funded high-quality early childhood programs in Pennsylvania.

In an answer to these challenges, Penn State Harrisburg is now a part of a three-college research partnership designed to guide state public policy and budgetary considerations by assessing the quality of child care available in rural areas of the Commonwealth. These regions many times are underserved and populated by low-income families, making quality child care out of reach for many parents and potentially slowing progress when a child begins school.

Collaborating with scholars from Lock Haven University and Penn State Altoona, Penn State Harrisburg associate professor of human development and family studies Richard Fiene and assistant professor of education Martha Strickland will be playing key roles in the study funded by a $49,994 grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania titled “Who’s Minding the Children in Rural Pennsylvania? A Profile of Regulated Childcare and the Families Using It.”

The scholarly partnership supports Penn State Harrisburg’s long-standing commitment to renew academic and research partnerships and develop new ones. As an engaged college and the region’s major research university presence, Penn State Harrisburg consistently lends its collective faculty talents through research such as the rural study to significantly improve the economic and cultural well-being of the many communities it serves.

Barry L. Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, says, “In these challenging economic times, affordable and accessible child care is a critical service that many families need in order to seek and maintain employment. The research team from these universities is extremely competent, possessing over 100 years of varied experience in childhood education and family/human development. I am confident their work will result in practical policy considerations for the General Assembly.”

Despite the current economic climate, early childhood education drew Gov. Ed Rendell’s attention in his proposed budget. Funding of Child Care Works would allow about 2,000 more children from low-income working families to receive child care subsidy. An additional 1,050 at-risk 3- and 4-year olds would have access to Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, increasing enrollment to high-quality pre-k through that program to 12,000. And the economic stimulus package working its way through Congress envisions more education for those under 5, including universal preschool, increased funding for Head Start, and affordable, high-quality child care for working families to the tune of $1.4 billion.

Strickland says, “My specialty is immigrant populations and education, but I’ve developed a passion for early childhood education and as a former elementary education teacher, I recognize the importance of quality early childhood care setting the pace for a child’s entire learning career. Although we have some general data, we are looking forward to focusing on the sometimes overlooked rural settings.”

Penn State Harrisburg’s portion of the research study will be to provide a detailed examination of child care provider participation in the voluntary STARS program in rural vs. urban areas of the state. “We will look at the problems facing rural centers and parents,” Fiene points out.

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Editors: Steven Hevner can be contacted at sdh4@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.