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The Lawrence Housing Authority plans to open a new preschool by early next year, replacing the program it lost earlier this year due to federal budget cuts known as "sequestration."
But local officials say there is still a large, unmet need for child care and early childhood education programs in Lawrence, especially for families with limited financial resources.
"We are super excited about it," said Shannon Oury, executive director of the Housing Authority.
In May, the Housing Authority learned that it was losing the Head Start preschool that had operated in the Edgewood housing complex at 1600 Haskell Ave. That was the result of $85.4 billion in automatic "sequestration" cuts that took effect after Congress and the White House failed to reach agreement on a deficit reduction package.
Oury said the Housing Authority issued a request for proposals, or RFP, to find a new daycare provider, but received no responses. But she said continued efforts to find another provider finally resulted in an agreement with several organizations that will enable the Douglas County Child Development Association to provide service there.
The new program will be called Positive Bright Start, and will have slots for up to 14 children, ages 3-5, with physical or developmental disabilities.
Oury said the new preschool will open in Edgewood once it receives a state license from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which she expects to happen early next year.
Local officials say that will help fill some of the gap between the supply and need for preschool programs in Lawrence and Douglas County. But many believe there is still a shortage, especially for families on limited incomes.
Reva Wywadis, executive director of Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas, a resource and referral agency, said the cost of full-time daycare or preschool in Douglas County ranges between $90 and $215 per week, depending on the child's age.
That adds up to as much as $10,000 a year, or roughly the same as a full year of tuition and fees for an in-state student at Kansas University.
"Given that nationally, child care can be more expensive than college, I think the affordability is always a challenge," said Erica Dvorske, executive director of the United Way of Douglas County.
Dvorske said the local United Way works with a number of other area agencies to help families find affordable day care and preschool. That includes awarding about $80,000 in United Way funds for preschool "scholarships" to help lower-income families afford the tuition.
She said it's difficult to pin down how much unmet demand there is for child care and preschool in Lawrence, in part because so many parents here commute to the Kansas City and Topeka areas for jobs and take their children to facilities close to where they work.
And when families can't find services, they manage to find "work-arounds," finding friends and relatives who can watch their children different days of the week.
But she said there is little doubt that there is still a need for more services in Lawrence.
"If we had more, it would be used more," she said. "And that would result in higher numbers of children entering kindergarten with the skills needed to succeed."