We sat down with Elizabeth Szymanski, co-founder and Head of Operations at MyVillage, a franchise that helps family child care providers in Colorado and Montana set up and manage their businesses while providing high-quality care. She shared about how family child care providers could help end America’s child care crisis, the resources and support they need to thrive, and how MyVillage eliminates common challenges.
How did MyVillage come about?
After my daughter was born, I took her to a child care center downtown to enroll her. When I was told there was a two-year wait list, and it would cost $2,000 a month, my heart dropped. I discovered that was the story at other places, too. I felt like I was failing as a parent before I even got started. But the entrepreneur in me recognized that there is a problem in this market.
You don’t see it until you’re a parent that affordable, high-quality child care is elusive to most families. The further you go down the income scale, the more compromises families have to make to meet their child care needs.
Naively, I thought that it must be working for the other side — for the people who work in centers, for nannys, and for family child care providers. But I heard across the board that the system is broken for them as well. The workforce is underpaid. Half of the ECE workers in Colorado are on a government subsidy. They lack professional development opportunities and upward mobility, and most close after three to five years due to burnout.
What did you find as you began researching solutions?
I started going into high-quality, home-based programs, which were rated with 4 to 5 stars on the state QRIS system, and I was blown away. When paired with an evidence-based curriculum, home-based child care is a recipe for quality with no overhead costs. I began to research how to replicate and support people who wanted to run high-quality, home-based child care.
What are some common challenges FCC providers face in becoming a self-sustaining, profitable business?
These are home-based businesses that are mostly run by women, most of whom have never run a business before. Most educators who get into business don’t do it to make money, they do it for the community and because they love caring for kids.
They lead with their heart out of a desire to create a safe, loving, nurturing environment for their community, so they say “yes” to the neighbor with a weird schedule, even though they won’t have a way to fill the gap in the program. Often, they don’t have a lot of business experience, so they don’t know that it’s best practice to have a separate business bank account or keep receipts so they can write off expenses at tax time. Many providers also struggle to collect payments on time, and there’s also not a lot of market data on how to set rates. There can be a lot of inefficiencies in revenue generation, including struggling to operate a program at capacity to maximize income.
It’s also hard to navigate state licensing. When you take the meta-view in Colorado, you can see that the state licensing standards are interpreted differently by the varying land use and planning bodies that enforce them in each county. And within your neighborhood, if you have an HOA, they may have templated language in their by-laws that prohibits running a child care business out of your home, even one that meets state licensure requirements and serves a small number of kids. Even though you can increase property value with a high-quality home-based program, it’s really complicated to change HOA by-laws. We’re working at the state level to pass Senate Bill 126 so family home programs can be allowed in all HOA communities in Colorado.
Family child care providers can get very intimidated by the business side, so as we build out our products and support we’re trying to remove anxieties associated with money to make it easier for educators to focus on doing what they love.
What should be key features of professional development for family child care providers?
A lot of the focus in the industry tends to be on early childhood skills, like lesson planning and the fundamentals of child development. But we’ve seen that educators who own their own businesses also need holistic professional development. They need support on how to manage their finances, how to plan for long-term growth in a program, and ways to expand or specialize to meet their community’s needs.
We’ll discuss how to integrate professional development for family child care providers into statewide systems during an upcoming webinar. Join us!
What’s your vision for growth and scale?
Our vision is to have a million kids in care over the next seven to eight years. There’s a huge market — at least $50 billion in formalized care, and research suggests there’s also a large shadow market of unlicensed extended family, neighbors, and friends who help with child care — so there’s room for a lot of different players. MyVillage is not willing to compromise on quality, which is our differentiator from other folks. We’ve invested in supports, resources, advisors, and the legal structure to support and ensure high-quality care.
How do you think about the tension between expansion and scaling and maintaining high quality?
Our products play a big role. We’re looking into a quality assessment system that’s easy for home-based providers to implement, and we’re investing in tools for them to use that will leverage authentic observation. We plan to build those assessments into our product system to make sure that we’re able to provide further support when needed.
Our program team is made up of ECE specialists who all formerly ran their own high-quality, home-based programs. They come in to support the educators if there’s a knowledge gap or a skill gap. They also help them navigate local quality improvement resources.
What could be the benefits of providing more high-quality, family child care providers in Colorado?
There are so many benefits! If you look at the existing child care landscape, only about 10 percent of programs out there meet basic standards of quality. That’s a pretty low bar. Improving the quality of child care that’s available could have a huge, positive impact on kids. About 90 percent of the educators we’re working with are brand new to the field. That’s important because we are building a new supply of child care to meet the massive demand that we’re currently failing to meet as a state or a country.
The number of family child care providers has been declining for more than a decade. FCCs are stigmatized and earn low wages — child care workers qualify for food stamps in all 50 states, based on average wage data. But if we can reverse that trend, and increase the supply of family child care programs that meet great quality standards, we can bring a sense of community back in neighborhoods. Instead of bringing your child to a center, you can drop them off with a community member who is co-parenting with you and engaged with other parents in your neighborhood. There’s a societal benefit scaling community programs and improving the affordable supply of high-quality child care.
How is COVID-19 impacting providers? How does this current public health crisis underscore the need for more reliable child care options?
Early childhood educators are on the front lines of the pandemic. Parents, even those working remotely, are desperate for options as large centers close down and schools shutter. People who operate small businesses or live paycheck to paycheck are feeling this uncertainty. MyVillage responded by raising emergency grant funding from impact investors to ensure that child care providers in our network can continue to educate young children into April.
The goal of the funding is to minimize disruptions to educator income and help parents manage the cost incurred during a COVID-19-related exposure or absence. All MyVillage educators closely adhere to CDC protocols around closures, while recognizing that small, home-based care is a safer option than other models right now. MyVillage is determined to keep everyone healthy while also continuing to help educators in our network earn money while meeting the very real needs of working families right now.