Preschool Podcast - Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies

Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies

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Resource and referral agencies are key to supporting child care providers in running their businesses, connecting with families and meeting state requirements for program quality. In this episode, Mary Smicklas and Erin Holleran, co-authors of the North Western Ohio YWCA business network system, tell us about the direct impact of good business practices on the quality of care. We also talk about the importance of having both hard and soft skills to manage the business side of child care and where to find business training programs that will help.   

Resources mentioned:

Preschool Podcast Mary Smicklas and Erin Holleran

Episode Transcript

SMICKLAS:

What we then decided to do was to create a network of different types of business support so that we could offer assistance to providers with the overarching goal being to help increase the quality of care that they were able to provide for children and participate in the rating system.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Mary and Erin welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

HOLLERAN:

thank you so much for having us!

SMICKLAS:

Hello, Ron!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So today on the show we’re lucky to have two guests joining us. So we have Mary Smicklas – She is the After-school Specialist and also Coordinator of Business Support at the YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] of northwest Ohio. And we also have Erin Holleran, who is a Step Up To Quality Specialist at the YWCA of northwest Ohio. And we’re going to be talking to Mary and Erin today about childcare resource and referral agencies, what they do [and] the value they can add. I’m really excited to learn more from Mary and Erin, so let’s jump into it. Let’s start by telling the audience what you do generally as a childcare resource and referral agency.

HOLLERAN:

Sure. Our agency, we offer quite a few different services. We serve families and we serve childcare providers. So for families we offer childcare searches – families can call us and we have a number of different questions that we go through with them about their specific needs. And then we are able to locate childcare programs that would meet their needs. And then they can take that information and go arrange tours and potentially enroll their children in those programs. We also offer a number of parenting programs, playgroups and parenting workshops and a variety of outreach types of things.

And then on the provider end we offer professional development trainings for program owners, administrators and classroom staff. We also offer what we call technical assistance so we can go and work with program staff on site. We work in classrooms as far as offering assistance with things like classroom arrangement, behavior management, implementing new curriculums or assessments, working on lesson planning with teachers.

We also do a technical assistance for our state’s quality rating system. So here in Ohio we participate in the Step Up To Quality program. So we, as a resource-and-referral, can help programs work through that application process. We help them with paperwork, we help them implement any of the requirements that they’re not currently doing – so things like starting to use developmental screening tools, selecting and implementing curriculum assessments, things like parent communication and engagement. So we offer quite a few resources that we’re able to assist them with that way.

We also have resource libraries that are available for our providers and for our community members so they can come in and do things like laminating. We have a cricket machine. They can cut out materials for bulletin boards or whatever special classroom projects that they might be working on.

And then we also do some work with community advocacy for childcare, things like helping the community understand the importance of high quality. Is there anything else that you want to add, Mary?

SMICKLAS:

That was actually a very good explanation, [a] comprehensive explanation of what we do.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And I think it really highlights the comprehensiveness of what you do. I’m very impressed. So it begs the question for me: Who’s funding this? Because it’s such great things that you’re offering to both parents and practitioners. Is it just something that’s free for people to use? How does that work?

HOLLERAN:

The vast majority of our services are free. A good amount of our funding comes from the Ohio Department of Child and Family Services. We’re also a partner agency with our local United Way, and we have a number of our programs come from other local grant opportunities as well.

preschool podcast mary smicklas erin holleran

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. So what, in a nutshell, is the overall of like mission of the Childcare Resource and Referral Agency there, then, would you say?

HOLLERAN:

Our work is really about increasing quality early-childhood education experiences for young children and making sure that all of the children in our area have access to those high-quality experiences.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool, cool. So again, sounds like some fabulous resources. Let’s start diving into those a little bit more in particular on the practitioner side. So business success resources for childcare and early learning programs – can you tell us a bit more about that and what’s available there?

SMICKLAS:

Sure, Ron. This is Mary. And what we were seeing – really in this in this line of work – is that a lot of our providers were struggling with their programs from a business standpoint. We find that most people that work with young children do so because they like working with young children, not necessarily because they’re credentialed in the area of business. So we were finding that a lack of business expertise was affecting our programs and our providers’ ability to participate in our quality rating system.

So what we then decided to do was to create a network of different types of business supports so that we could offer that specific type of assistance to providers with the overarching goal being to help increase the quality of care that they were able to provide for children and participate in the rating system.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So is it fair to say that you’re seeing a very strong correlation – if not a direct correlation –between the business success of a childcare program and the quality of the childcare program?

SMICKLAS:

Most definitely. The quality of the business truly does free up… if the business practices of the administrator are solid and they’re well versed in business and understand how to navigate fiscal things and the outsourcing of certain types of business-related duties that they may not necessarily have the expertise in, that ultimately frees up their time and resources for them to reinvest in quality. So I would most definitely say that we see that correlation more often than not.

HOLLERAN:

And I wanted to go ahead and add that one is the common denominators between successful businesses and successful participation in our quality ratings systems is the ability to implement system for organizing and maintaining all of the records that are required. So a strong business is going to have systems like budgets and very clear filing and organizational systems, and it’s similar with a lot of the paperwork requirements that we have to work through for the quality rating systems.

SMICKLAS:

As well as basic licensing. So it helps, it twofold: the business support truly does help them from a business standpoint and free up their time to participate in the state ratings, the quality rating system. But it also helps with their licensing inspections and requirements as well.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, and it’s really a point I try to hit home with our listeners because it’s not something we often think about in early-childhood education in terms of the business side of the equation. But I would agree that it’s so critical in order to deliver high-quality education. We have to have a strong, fundamental business to support that, and I think you framed it well with if you’ve got the strong business and associated systems and processes and organization that’s associated with that it frees up the resources and capability to then focus on the educational piece, which is what we’re passionate about and why were there. And I think that’s a really good way to frame that, and I really want to hit that point home.

So if we continue on this path, what are some of the business trainings that are offered, just to give our listeners a sense of some of the things that maybe they should be thinking about or could reach out to their local resource-and-referral agency to learn more about?

HOLLERAN:

Sure. So we have a number of business trainings that we offer regularly. Some of them our agency has developed. Some of them were developed in conjunction with our state Job and Family Services and Department of Education. And some of them are trainings that we were lucky enough to obtain from a national level. So these include trainings like strengthening fiscal management, [in] which we talk about budgets and we talk about financial reporting and internal controls.

We’ve also got trainings that are maybe a little bit less technical: leadership, planning staff meeting, solutions for tuition and fee collection, marketing solutions, everything from emergency preparedness to financial consideration and program development and evaluation. So we really have tried to cover every piece of the business aspect.

SMICKLAS:

preschool podcast mary smicklas erin holleran

Ron, we refer to needing hard and soft skills as a successful business owner. So we tried to really make sure that we had a comprehensive package, as far as training, so that we could help providers wherever they fall on the spectrum in terms of strengths and weaknesses in those areas.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, both super important, and I know on the Podcast we focus a lot on the soft skills. We talk a lot about leadership and culture and engaging your teachers and your staff and your parents and families as well, but probably a lot less on the hard skills. In your experience, where do you find childcare administrators struggle the most or have the most questions when it comes to both the hard and the soft skills and capabilities?

SMICKLAS:

We just recently developed a training inter-agency on staff retention. And I can’t speak for all childcare resource-and-referrals because there are many in many different states. But in our area – and I think it’s safe to say in Ohio in general – staff retention is a big issue. So our quality rating system for the state requires that the higher rating levels that you have a highly qualified staff. So that means that staff are required to have a certain number of credentials or qualifications that the higher-star levels oftentimes ask degrees. And so to be quite frank there’s not a tremendous amount of revenue in childcare.

So to retain staff members is a challenge for a lot of providers. But we’re finding from our research that we’re doing that people stay at jobs when they love their job. Money is not always the number one factor for people to stay or leave a job. It’s how much they’re fulfilled, if they feel challenged, if they feel like their work is rewarding. So when we talk about soft skills, those are the kinds of things that we focus very intently on in leadership because that is how you truly retain a highly-educated staff when you don’t necessarily have the resources to pay them what they’re worth in terms of their credentials.

HOLLERAN:

And as far as hard skills, anything financial is always a huge discussion with our providers. And I ran a program so I’ve definitely dealt with it personally. But it can be very difficult to seek out assistance for things like building your budget or managing your books for a childcare program because, to be quite honest, childcare programs have to be run very differently than a lot of other businesses because of things like staff ratios and the hours that you have to be open and the licensing requirements. So to talk to just any accountant, they may not be able to lead you in the right direction as far as what’s best for a childcare program.

Also, our providers, a lot of them don’t have a background to walk up to someone who is very versed in financial work and be able to understand the terminology that they use, which can be quite intimidating. So we do really try to… our trainings are very much designed so that they introduce the vocabulary, the terminology so that we have a basic understanding. And then if they do seek out additional assistance from a professional, they’re able to speak with them on an educated level.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, that’s a really good point in that there’s a huge benefit of working with an agency like yourselves in that you have both the sector knowledge as well as the training around the financial acumen. And oftentimes you might have one without the other, in particular if you’re working with a general bookkeeper or accountant that works with other industries. So that’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of but certainly it makes a lot of sense after you explain it.

Based on your experience working with childcare programs in Ohio, what are like key messages you would like to give to our audience in terms of things that you see people doing well and things that you see your childcare programs getting a lot of benefit from these business training programs and in applying back in the field? And we talked a bit on the finance side, talked a bit about staff fulfillment and having challenging roles that are rewarding. What are your main takeaways from your experience doing this?

SMICKLAS:

Well, we do a lot of work with a concept that is referred to as the Iron Triangle – this was developed by Louise Stoney. And what the Iron Triangle stands for, or what it basically means, is that there are three vital components that need to be in place in order for a childcare business to be profitable and sustainable. So what that means, the three different components there that go with the triangle are full fee collection, full enrollment and covering the cost per child.

So we really tried to get providers to equip them with the basic knowledge for them to do those type of calculations and be very mindful that in order for them to be successful as a business – specifically, like Erin said, with childcare business, which is different then than a lot of different types of businesses – they have to have those three components in place. So we do offer… we have an overview training that Erin actually developed that’s on the Iron Triangle. And then she has also developed breakout training where they look at each one of those components in sort of a deep dive or a deeper sense so that they can really wrap their mind around that ideology.

HOLLERAN:

And something a little bit more general that we have seen to be very beneficial for our providers is collaboration. We’ve also developed, we call it our Business Success Institute. It’s a community of learners. So what that means is that it’s training, but it’s all participant-led. So we meet once a month. The participants receive 22 hours of training and they lead the discussion topics and it’s very collaborative. So right now we have roughly 20 providers who are participating in that, and they have really formed an incredible relationship where they are sharing things that work really well for them, sharing contacts that they’ve made in the community, thinking about improvements that they would like to do to their programs and getting advice from each other about how to do those things and how to start saving and taking advantage of the different resources that are available in the community.

And all of that all of the providers that have participated in that program have given us wonderful feedback about just how nice it is to be able to call another provider and ask a question without feeling like they’re in competition with each other. So I think that would definitely be a huge suggestion, is reach out and see what others are doing that you might be able to implement something similar.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, and that’s something else that’s a common theme we’ve heard on the Podcast, is building a network of peers or mentors, even, if you’re newer in your career is very valuable. And it’s such a tough job, as you will both know, and a lot of our listeners will know. So having people that you can talk to about your challenges is important.

You guys are doing some phenomenal work, and it really makes me think about there’s so much training out there and in childcare and early-childhood education and a lot of it’s very deep. But maybe it’s very helpful for a lot of providers out there to kind of take a step back and really make sure they nail down the fundamentals on the soft skills and the hard skills before doing those very specific trainings that might not add the same amount of value until you really have the strong fundamentals in place around the pieces you talked about here today. I think a really great case study for other childcare resource and referral agencies out there.

If I’m listening to the Podcast and I want to get in touch with you to learn more about what you’re doing, because maybe I want to start one of these agencies or I am part of one and want to learn about some of the best practices that you have because you’re doing such a wonderful job, or maybe I’m in Ohio and I want to get in touch with you to take part in some of these learnings, how can I best get in touch with you?

SMICKLAS:

So, Ron, I’m going to give you my email address as well as the office phone number, and I would be pleased to answer any and all questions. We really feel like this work has been impactful in our area. It is constantly because of the impact that we’re seeing and the data that we’re gathering, we are expanding. We would like to go…  we are right now kind of focused in northwest Ohio but we would like to expand farther out. So yes, more than happy to answer any inquiries or questions at all. My email address MSmicklas:@ywcanwo.org. And then the office phone number is 419-225-5465. And we are available from 8:30AM to 5:00PM.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. Erin, Mary, this has been really informative. And like I said, I think a great case study for any agency or association out there that is thinking about providing these types of services to the childcare and early-learning programs in their vicinity because I think you’ve really nailed down the key elements to success. And [we] wish you continued success, and thank you so, so much for sharing your experiences, your learnings with us here on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been wonderful having you on the show.

HOLLERAN:

Thank you so much for having us. We are always happy to share.

SMICKLAS:

Thank you, Ron.



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