Nonprofit Notebook: The early years

Childcare and early education is community care.

Children at the Vineyard Montessori School a couple of years ago. —Courtesy MVYouth

There are 22 state-licensed early childcare programs on Martha’s Vineyard. Twelve are home-based, and 10 are center-based. All have different pedagogical approaches. All are excellent, serving the needs of our young Island children. And the need for these schools and programs is huge.

In a 2019 study conducted by MVYouth, prior to COVID-19, access to early childcare was the top identified need. Before we go further, it is important to note that this reflects the national reality, where roughly 31.7 percent of U.S. children under the age of 5 cannot access a childcare slot. MVYouth hired Sally Sharp Lehman, a Boston-based consultant, to investigate the most critical needs of the Island’s youth community (ages 0-25). MVYouth Executive Director Lindsey Scott says, “It was a wonderful exercise, turning over stones, assessing what known and unknown needs were unmet. Early childcare and child education supports the community in three ways. First, you are investing in the child, offering them access to high-quality care, possible early educational interventions, social and emotional skills so that they can become healthy members of the public school environment. Early childcare and education also provides stabilization for the family. Parents can get back to work, advancing their careers and earning potential without the stress and worry from erratic childcare. When parents can show up to work unencumbered by stressors, the whole community is stabilized. Employers and institutions can offer their goods and services with Island parents who are not distracted or absent due to lack of adequate care.”

Philanthropic efforts, led by MVYouth, which has invested $2.6 million into early childcare and education on the Island, alongside numerous other funding organizations and generous individuals, have increased the number of available childcare spots for all age groups; however, demand continues to outweigh the supply. In 2019, Felix Neck opened its nature-based Fern and Feather Preschool, and was immediately full. According to Felix Neck’s education manager, Josey Kirkland, they now serve 24 families, and have a waitlist of 67 families. In 2021, M.V. Community Services opened its $8.1 million early education and care building. According to Heather Quinn, director of early childhood programs at Community Services, they currently have seven infants, 18 toddlers, and 36 preschoolers, with a substantial waitlist for all age levels. Now the Vineyard Montessori School (often referred to as VMS), Plum Hill, and Chilmark Preschool are in various stages of expansion plans as well.

Deborah Jernegan, head of the Vineyard Montessori School, says, “The Island has incredible, high-quality, licensed early childhood programs. We just don’t have enough licensed space to support Island families. Healthy communities invest in equity and access to early childhood [education]. There is significant evidence that quality early education and care deliver positive child outcomes, and enable economic mobility for families. High-quality childcare maximizes children’s prospects to succeed in school and in life.”

Anja May, director of the Chilmark Preschool, expands on this: “This is often the first time a child is away from home, away from their parents. This is the child’s first experience of the world. The feeling the parents and children get from the school — and the school community — stays with them. If it is stressful, that is their experience of school and being in community. If they feel connected, seen and safe, that foundational, early feeling will last through their education and lifetime. While many who are raising their children here have grown up here, and have a sense of community, parenting young children can be isolating, scary. Offering community for the family as well as the child is critical,” May says.

Lucia Dillon, co-director of the Plum HIll School, says, “A huge part of our work is to make the classroom feel like a home away from home. A second home.” Co-director Laura Marashlian adds, “Not just for the children, but the parents too. That is why we have festivals and gatherings.”

Part of making their school a home away from home for Plum Hill started when they received an expansion grant in 2020 from MVYouth. For the first time in its history, Plum Hill has a permanent home, on Pine Hill Lane in West Tisbury. “We no longer have to put our materials and school in bins for the summer,” Dillon says. Marashlian agrees. “We can be even more intentional about our work and what we bring to the children, rather than, ‘Oh my goodness, our stuff is moldy from storage.’”

Plum Hill was started by April Thanhauser under the name Dayspring Children’s Garden in 1996, as a family daycare center in West Tisbury. In the past few decades, the Rudolph Steiner–based preschool program has morphed, formalized, and grown. As Marashlian explains it, the Steiner method is about “trying to keep children in a dream life state. We don’t want to wake up the child’s intellect just yet. We want to encourage imagination, to be in nature as much as possible, to develop their fine and gross motor skills, and to foster social, emotional selves.”

They offer a preschool, which is licensed to accommodate 14 children, and a nursery program that serves up to nine children a day. “Typically we have about 18 families a year, as not all the children come every day. And in the nursery, we have 11 families,” Dillon says. Now that Plum Hill has a year-round home, they also offer a summer program. “We have between 60 and 70 children over the course of the eight-week program. It has been so great to be able to offer this, as so many parents work even more during the summer.”

The Vineyard Montessori School (VMS) also received an MVYouth expansion grant. VMS was established in 1975, and practices the Montessori method, which is based on independent, hands-on learning and collaborative play. To support working families, VMS opened the summer program and toddler program, but found they needed more space. “Our facilities were lacking. The expansion to toddler programming supported a scarcity of space within the community. Our toddler program was full immediately. Now we have to create space for those children who want to stay for preschool,” Deborah Jernegan says. As a result, VMS is planning to build a new structure, to offer an additional 21 spaces for preschool-age students. The toddler program, which works with children who are 15 months to 3 years, is licensed to care for 18 children; the preschool has 59 children; the elementary school has 13; and the middle school has 10 children. Like Plum Hill, VMS offers an eight-week summer camp program for 3- to 7-year-olds, hosting 70 campers a week. “Island families have priority acceptance into the summer camp. This said, it is a mix of Island families and 50 percent off-Island families, which is really special,” Jernegan says.

And to add to the Island preschool mix, now the Chilmark Preschool is launching its expansion plans. Working in collaboration with the town of Chilmark and the Chilmark School, the Chilmark Preschool is raising money for a purpose-built early education home. They need to raise $3.5 million to realize this goal. The preschool launched in 2005, with Chris Abrams as the Chilmark Preschool’s first director. Chris was a champion of early childhood education, and laid the groundwork for a preschool classroom filled with music and an appreciation for the arts, nature, and one another. When she retired in 2010, Heather Lionette expanded the program, offering families a full-time option. Anja May says, “The research tells us how vital and impactful the first five years of every human’s life are. We are always looking at ways that we can support the children. How can we make new friends? How can we have healthy interactions? How can we thrive together? It is a collaborative process. Years ago, we realized how much it costs to outfit a kid to go to school. So we instituted a clothing swap. Jackets, pants, shoes, you name it. Everyone here shares, and there is pride in it.”

Beyond fundraising for physical space, all three schools are on the lookout for paths to make preschool more affordable and available to all families. At $9,980 for the year, the Chilmark Preschool is the least expensive. This said, all the preschools we spoke with work to help parents who qualify for state Bailey Boyd grant money, helping them with paperwork and even Xeroxing materials that need to be submitted to get the funding. “The affordability of childcare is hard on the parents,” Jernegan says. “We work so hard to help our families be here.”

In addition to the block grant funding that supports all early childhood students, VMS also offers a Strong Start scholarship to families to help cover the cost. “The base price for a year at Vineyard Montessori is $10,500, but again, there are subsidies,” Jernegan says. Plum Hill costs $10,800 annually for five days a week.

And even though Plum Hill now has a home, Dillon and Marashlian are thinking about how to expand to accommodate more, include more kids and programs. “It’d be great to have a farm and some animals,” Dillon says, laughing. “We get so excited about the possibilities.” Marashlian agrees. May is excited too. She can’t wait for her students to have a permanent home. “I can just see it. Feel the feeling of our community’s young children having a permanent educational home. It will be amazing.”

As I sat with May and the other school leaders, I shared in their excitement. And I must say that I honor the commitment, time, and expertise that all these educators bring to our youngest community members. It is clear from speaking with them that they are doing it out of passion, and with the knowledge that this is the best and healthiest start for every one of our Island’s children, and for us.

But all said, know this: There is still so much work to be done. MVYouth’s Scott says, “With a $490,000 grant from MVYouth, Community Services is working to expand the number of home-based programs. They hope to license 10 new home-based programs in the next five years.” There are also two center-based programs eager to expand — the Chilmark Preschool and VMS.

“The greatest dearth of existing services continues to be for infants. Infant childcare is the most expensive to run, with a ratio of 1 teacher to 3 infants, and small allowable groups. Right now we are meeting less than 10 percent of the demand for infant childcare on the Island,” Scott says. She sighs and continues, “Once your child is in public school, it’s easy to forget how stressful and demanding the early childhood years are for parents. But they are critical for so many reasons, and it affects so many. We need to keep investing and working to support these families because, as we know, it will support everyone in the long run.”