Early Learning Coalition pilot grant program supports childcare in Hillsborough at crucial time

The Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County has launched a pilot grant project to fund an array of programs and services at the county’s child care centers during a critical time for the industry. 

Outdoor gardens, playground upgrades and safety improvements are in the mix. There is a voucher program to cover the costs of spring break and summer break programs for parents. Grants are available to add more classrooms for infants and toddlers as more families move to Hillsborough. 

There is a stipend for centers that provide their employees with health care benefits. To help with administration and operations, there is money available for business software and partial reimbursement of accreditation process costs and fees.

For educators and employees working at child care centers, there is money available to get transcripts, degrees and diplomas translated, along with health care stipends.

The Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County is still accepting applications for all of those programs as of late January. The application windows for some do not close until May. Some other initiatives for which the application window has closed include curriculum expansions, a literacy initiative for classroom materials, reading tablets and a home library,  and funding for mini-makeovers of childcare centers. Some funding is also going toward the development of a mental health mobile app for center employees.

“There’s a whole host of different programs,” says Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough CEO Fred Hicks. “We have made certain that we have covered as many different aspects of what the different programs might need to ensure that we continue to support the child care industry as a whole so it doesn’t fall apart.”

A crucial time

Hicks says the grant funds come at a crucial time for child care across the region, state and country. A 2024 report from Care.com, an online marketplace and information resource for caregivers, says a survey showed families are spending 24 percent of their income on child care when seven percent is considered affordable.

Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County CEO Fred Hicks.Hicks says inflation has driven up costs for child care, particularly for single parents, and has hit child care center employees hard as well. Meanwhile, $24 billion for child care from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the 2021 legislation also known as the COVID stimulus, went away on September 30, 2023. The Florida Legislature has extended that financial support through June 2024 by distributing unspent ARPA funds to the state’s early learning coalitions, which oversee voluntary prekindergarten, school readiness and other early education programs on the local level.

“What happened with the American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the state did not send those dollars back,” Hicks says. “Instead, there was what I would call a brilliant move on the part of the State Legislature to redistribute those funds so that coalitions could help sustain the childcare industry. That decision was not taken lightly. Hillsborough County received the second largest allocation because of the number of brick-and-mortar childcare centers here in Hillsborough. Miami-Dade received the largest. Our allocation was just over $30 million.”

He says the Early Learning Coalition staff leaders and board members are working with community partners such as Community Foundation Tampa Bay, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, United Way Suncoast, Hillsborough County government and businesses to keep initiatives funded by the pilot grant program going after June 30. Meanwhile, multiple bills filed in Tallahassee this session seek to make child care more affordable for parents, including a measure offering tax credits to employers who reimburse their workers for childcare costs.

High-quality, equitable and inclusive early learning 

Hicks has been with the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough since November 2022 after 14 years with the Early Learning Coalition of Miami Dade. AS CEO, he oversees a nonprofit organization that administers School Readiness and Voluntary Prekindergarten programs in Hillsborough County, offers teacher training and coaching, and provides child care resources and referrals and other early learning services for almost 30,000 families. The Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County impacts nearly 30,000 families a year through VPK, School Readiness and other early learning and childcare programming.The goal, Hicks says, is to work in collaboration with parents, the community and caregivers to provide high-quality, equitable and inclusive early learning experiences that prepare children for school and life regardless of their socio-economic background or the zip code in which they live.

In Florida, the School Readiness Program offers financial assistance for child care to working parents and parents pursuing an education whose household income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level. 

“The school readiness is absolutely phenomenal because it makes certain those parents are able to come in, get their child enrolled in and go off to work,” Hicks says. “It helps the workforce, it helps the family and it keeps parents in a position to provide with respect and dignity knowing that their child is being cared for, is safe and has a wonderful opportunity for early education experiences.”

The state’s VPK program offers three hours of free prekindergarten to all four-year-old children in the state, regardless of income. That totals 540 hours of instruction during the school year and 100 during the summer. Hicks says in Hillsborough, about 50 percent of the eligible four-year-old children are enrolled in VPK. Not coincidentally, a United Way Suncoast report finds that a little less than  50 percent of the children entering kindergarten in Hillsborough have the educational foundation and social-behavioral skills to be considered school-ready. Hicks says if the VPK participation rate rises, more children will walk into kindergarten confident and prepared.

Partner initiatives
The Early Learning Coalition also works with community partners on cultural and education enrichment programs for children. The iSPY program works with Zoo Tampa, the Florida Aquarium, the Glazer Children’s Museum and MOSI enhancing reading, science, and mathematics proficiency among preschoolers aged 3-5. The program also offers a free pass to the zoo, aquarium and museums for participating children, who may bring up to four family members on each visit.

“There are a multitude of benefits if a child has these cultural experiences,” Hicks says. They learn and they keep learning because the curiosity is high.”

For more information, go to ELC special funding and resources

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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.