Willie Rankin, left, is the director of the Institute to Advance Child Care. The institute is part of Child Care Associates. Kara Waddell, right, is the CEO and president of Child Care Associates. (Courtesy of Child Care Associates)

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, we talk to two Child Care Associates officials about the organization’s new initiative called the Institute to Advance Child Care. 

Child Care Associates launched the institute on April 12, 2022. It is focused on exploring ideas to rethink early childhood education in Tarrant County. The institute will act as the data arm of Child Care Associates.

Reporter Jacob Sanchez discussed the new endeavor with Child Care Associates President and CEO Kara Waddell and Willie Rankin, the director of the Institute to Advance Child Care. Rankin previously worked as the executive director of Las Vegas Trail Rise, an organization working to revitalize the west Fort Worth community.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Jacob Sanchez: What is the Institute to Advance Child Care? Tell me a little bit about it. 

Kara Waddell: The Institute to Advance Child Care is really an effort that Child Care Associates has been endeavoring since our inception in the late ’60s, and that’s to support child care programs across our community. This is formalizing efforts that we’ve been doing for decades: tracking the data; knowing the information; representing what child care providers need; making sure that our families and our community have that access to the child care support they need; and that our children have access to the childcare quality they need in order to be successful and ready.

Sanchez: Willie, how did you get involved with this?

Willie Rankin: I was approached about the idea because of my community outreach and collaboration style that I generally served Las Vegas Trail Rise with. This particular project is going to take a lot of listening, a lot of collaboration and evaluating some of the underlying issues and identifying with the community that’s the expert on the topic solutions that might be possible.

That is my background. I have stayed in a niche of startup programs, startup initiatives, new initiatives, so that’s kind of where my comfort zone is.

Waddell: One of the things we love about Willie is that he brings that strong implementation knowledge and experience and standing things up on the ground.

The institute is not just about coming up with ideas, but there’s also an implementation function. Let’s stand up solutions, opportunities, pilots, and get them up and going on the ground. That’s one of the things that jumped out to us about Willie. 

Really the third function for the institute is to communicate more broadly about what’s happening in the 0 to 5 early learning sector and what child care programs and child care providers need to be successful. That’s something our communities lacked in the last five or 10 years. We’ve dramatically expanded pre-K childcare, but child care providers didn’t really have a voice in how that moved forward, and we hope the institute can help be that voice, not only for providers, but for working parents.

Sanchez: Willie, how will your experience come into play leading the institute? We touched on it some, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. 

Rankin: My experience of just being used to being the outside person, looking in and not trying to tell industries what they already know or trying to come up with ideas as if they’re unique, but listening to everyone, those who need the advocacy, such as parents or educators. From an equity standpoint, all voices need to be heard as we move forward towards a solution. 

My background has shown that I have the ability to look at people from different industries across sectors, and also understand that there’s a deep knowledge already here at Child Care Associates that I can be surrounded with when it comes to the knowledge.

So the fresh pair of eyes and being able to come up with a solution that is beneficial to the different people who need the child care sector to improve, which includes parents, educators and also the business community, who are looking for more workers to return to the workforce.

Sanchez: How will the Institute improve outcomes in early childhood education and what are some potential solutions you all will be exploring? 

Waddell: Exploring solutions is done in partnership with our Blue Ribbon Action Committee for Child Care, which is a group of cross sector business leaders. It’s in partnership with our elected officials and our government leaders, as we try to lean into where things go from here. 

We have to come up with a different way that we pay for the real costs affiliated with child care. Parents cannot afford to pay a dime more for child care today, but the quality isn’t at the level that we need it to be. And our government assistance to help our low income families even afford the childcare that we have today is not sufficient to cover the actual and real cost. 

We hope to be able to model and capture what are those real costs on the ground, especially now that the labor costs are changing so dramatically, so that we make sure that we fund high quality child care. 

One exciting endeavor that we get to bring back to our Texas Rising Star child care programs is the use of the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) tool. CLASS is a gold standard in early education and measures the quality of teacher child interactions. We can assess not just program by program, but classroom by classroom. What sets of children are experiencing the kind of high quality research informed conditions? That can be social-emotional support, the environment and the instructional quality that contribute to strong child outcomes. We can do that in pre-K, head start, early head start and child care, so that we have an equal playing field.

Sanchez: Would you like to add anything to that, Willie? 

Rankin: We already know there’s a lot of need, which Kara mentioned. There are the wage gaps, the accessibility, the infrastructure needs and the quality needs. We will better understand that these are all the needs by listening to the community and working with the city of Fort Worth, the Blue Ribbon Action Committee and Tarrant County. The exact results are still to come. 

Sanchez: What should parents and the broader community expect from the institute? 

Waddell: They should expect a supply of child care to meet their work needs. We’ll finally have a data team that’s rummaging through what’s available.

If we have a large group of employers in one area that needs 24-hour care, how do we develop that capacity to provide the care that families need? We just haven’t had a dedicated institute like this to really hone in on what businesses and employees need to have the kind of quality child care support.

Rankin: I believe that many communities are going to feel that they are being heard. There are a lot of communities that are in need, and that is just what the data shows. But also they will have the institute to communicate other specific needs that surround child care and actually be listened to on how it’s being implemented.

Sanchez: How did the idea for the institute come about? 

Waddell: Our child care programs are experiencing a kind of a market failure. We can’t afford to raise costs, but the costs have risen and no one can afford to pay the costs. During the pandemic, we just began to rummage through data and research. We pulled together the existing team at Child Care Associates, and really there were amazing ideas and concepts and research that we could pull up. But we were all so busy doing our work that we had to do today, we didn’t really have time to ideate and plan and look to the future.

This gives us kind of a lab unit where we can pull together not just Child Care Associates employees, but the smartest minds in our community and other nonprofit organizations. The child care system hit an iceberg, and the institute gets a chance to help rebuild where we go from here. That’s exciting. 

Sanchez: Is there anything else you would like to mention that we didn’t talk about?

Rankin: I’m just really excited about the opportunity. I look for a way my time could be spent to have a positive impact on the community, and I think this particular project is going to have a great impact on many communities. From my background, I’ve always tried to work to see what can help people the most here in Tarrant County.

This is one of those projects that looking back three years from now, we’re going to say we worked really hard and we put some things in place that can help us for generations to come. 

Waddell: Willie, I know you’re a father of young children yourself and it’s so great that we have leaders of color, fathers, mothers coming together and looking afresh at solutions and where we go from here. We’re excited to roll up our sleeves. 

There are no silver bullets. If they were, we already would have found them. But I think there are some practical ways that we can move forward from here.

The case for early education has been baked. The real question now is how do we get it done and get it done at scale and at a quality level that impacts children. That’s the nut to crack. 

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....

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