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The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

Child care industry faces ongoing challenges in rural Aroostook County

Penobscot Hall on the Northern Maine Community College campus in Presque Isle is under renovation to turn the building into a childcare center. Once completed, it will offer care for the children of students and faculty, and be a training site for students in the early childhood education program.
Kaitlyn Budion
/
Maine Public
Penobscot Hall on the Northern Maine Community College campus in Presque Isle is under renovation to turn the building into a childcare center. Once completed, it will offer care for the children of students and faculty, and be a training site for students in the early childhood education program.

As parents in Maine and across the country struggle to find and keep childcare, those challenges are amplified in rural areas like Aroostook county, where its particularly hard to hire and retain staff, and keep fees affordable for parents, all in a time of significant inflation. Northern Maine Community College is coming at the problem in a way that's designed to not only provide more child care spaces in the region, but generate more capacity in the future.

Melanie Tompkins of Mapleton says she was delighted when her son Lucien made it off the waitlist at Miss Jordyn's Childcare and Preschool, nearly 30 miles away in Caribou.

It was just before his first birthday, and while at first he was nervous to start in the new environment, he quickly settled in and began to blossom.

"I mean, she was definitely like the top-notch daycare provider and not just daycare, like it was a school environment," Tompkins said. "So he learned, he flourished. He did really well."

But just six months later, the center closed, leaving 100 kids, including Lucien, without care, and his mother searching for other options. It’s a problem that working families across the country face every day.

Meanwhile, childcare workers have their own challenges. Julia Blake is in her final semester for an associates degrees in the early childhood education program at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. She grew up going to her mom's childcare center, Circle Of Friends Daycare and is doing her required field work there now.

Blake says because the state has specific staff to child ratios, children may be moved between rooms when staffing levels are low.

"She'll have to give me some kids in the morning so she can fit ratio," Blake said. "But then I'll have like more kids show up. And then I'll be over ratio, and it's like, a constant back and forth."

In an effort to respond to the childcare crisis on a local level, NMCC has begun work on transforming Penobscot hall on campus into a new childcare center.

It will offer care for the children of students and faculty, but will also serve as a training site for students in the early childhood education program.

But with a shortage of childcare centers in the region, the college can't guarantee its graduates will have a place to work when they complete their training.

"So we might be producing a lot of you know, professionals into the field, but they may not go directly into childcare," said Danielle Rae Clark, an instructor in the early childhood education program.

She says one goal for instructors is to prepare these young workers to open their own centers someday, which can require them to navigate through layers of bureaucracy and licensing.

"And many people who go into this field, while they're really good at working with children and know what they're doing there," she said. "They're not really accountants, and they're not really secretaries. And to be able to start your own center, you need to be able to do those things."

Since the closure of Miss Jordyn's in August the Tompkins family has been able leave their young son Lucien in the care of a family friend. But the situation has been disruptive.

"For our family, it was just like a huge loss, you know, that consistency and stability and the quality," Tompkins said.

Tompkins is a social worker, and says she understands the potential harm of moving kids in and out of different environments. She's reluctant to place Lucien into the first available childcare spot, only to have to pull him out shortly after when he starts school. There are no easy answers, she says.

"There's so many different balls in the air to try to make sure you're making the best choice for everybody," Tompkins said.

Meanwhile demolition is underway on the NMCC campus, and work on the new childcare center will continue through the winter, and into in the spring. Once open it will have spots for 47 children.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.