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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Infant, toddler class may close

Alexander Smith watches as his mom, Theresa Smith, washes the paint from his feet after the parent and child activity. 
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Alexander Smith watches as his mom, Theresa Smith, washes the paint from his feet after the parent and child activity. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

Nine-month-old Hailey Hixson’s legs were covered with pink paint Friday morning. She reached out toward her 15-month-old friend Colin, who had a yellow star stamped on his mostly blue chest.

“He’s a superhero,” said his mother Sheena Williams, who just earned her high school diploma.

The body painting was a special activity for the families involved in Central Valley School District’s program for pregnant and parenting teens. The Barker High School program, which includes parenting classes and child-care services, will look a little different next year.

District officials said they will close Barker’s infant and toddler care classroom because it is losing about $5,000 a month. A similar classroom at the district’s Keystone Early Childhood Education Center will remain open; a few of the Barker mothers have already enrolled their children there.

Child-care programs “notoriously don’t pay for themselves,” said Carol Peterson, a Central Valley executive director who works with elementary education.

State guidelines require the district to hire one specialist for every four infants, she said. Many of the young women who use the Barker program qualify for DSHS assistance, which pays the district about $100 less a month for the service than other community members.

“The district doesn’t receive any state funding for the program,” Peterson said. “It all has to be self-supporting.”

Over the past year, district officials have been cutting the budget to meet rising costs associated with teachers’ and principals’ contracts, energy and insurance.

“We have to do more with less,” said district spokesman Skip Bonuccelli. “When you’re in the business of educating kids, you really have to focus on curriculum and curriculum delivery.”

But Mary Vanderwal, an early childhood education specialist for the program, said the district could have done a better job of marketing the child-care program. It is open to all infants and toddlers, regardless of whether their moms are enrolled in the teen program. This year they had about four infants and eight toddlers enrolled.

Barker “is one of those buildings that you don’t really know what’s in it,” she said. “We’ve asked for a banner or a sign or a reader board or something.”

Peterson said that even if enrollment skyrocketed, the center would be a financial challenge to run because of the required number of child-care providers.

“We’d still have to raise the cost so much it would be prohibitive to people,” she said.

For a number of years, the district offset the Barker program’s financial woes with revenue from its Liberty Lake program, Peterson said. The district closed the program three years ago when the school’s enrollment soared and classroom space was needed.

Area educators say they recognize the value of having child care available to parenting teens. Teri Jingling, a teacher at the Mead School District’s alternative school, said they are discussing the possibility of starting a program.

“We definitely see a need for it,” she said. “Whether it’s practical or not, I don’t know.”

Alternative schools in both Spokane and West Valley districts have programs for pregnant and parenting teens with on-site child care. West Valley supports its program with a federal grant. Spokane School District manages personnel costs by relying partly on high school students enrolled in an early childhood education class.

“I like that I can just walk down the hall and check on my daughter,” said 18-year-old Chelsea Hixson, a student at Barker.

Teddi Greene, the social worker who runs the school’s parenting classes, said transportation and child care are the biggest barriers between the mothers and their high school diploma.

Williams said her son Colin has been enrolled in the day care since he was 7 weeks old. The security and stability of the program allowed her to earn eight credits this year at Barker and take dental assistant classes at the Spokane Skills Center, she said.

Williams will continue her studies at Spokane Community College in the fall.

She and the mothers participate twice a week in what is known as “parent and child activity time.” The aim is to teach the mothers parenting skills while they interact with their babies in a supervised environment. Sometimes they spend their hour quietly reading to their babies in rocking chairs. On Friday, the lesson was much more active.

As the play wound down, Vanderwal helped 18-year-old Tamara Witkoe safely wash the paint off her daughter Kaitlyn in a small sink.

“Lay a washcloth down,” Vanderwal said. “That way she won’t slip and slide.”

Witkoe followed Vanderwal’s directions. Later, she commented on her dismay over losing the program.

“It’s important for our kids to have the stability,” she said. “The (specialists) who are here, you can’t find the quality of people at just any day care.”

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