How can Wake make its schools less segregated? More childcare programs might help.

Improving access to childcare programs could be one way that the Wake County school system helps integrate schools.

Wake school leaders say a reason for the growing socioeconomic imbalance in school populations is that not all families have convenient and affordable access to before school and after-school programs. Families also don’t have affordable access to “trackout” programs when students at year-round schools are on break.

On Tuesday, school board members brainstormed ways how the district could improve childcare access, including potentially providing financial support to families and working with groups to offer more programs. Surveys could go out to parents asking questions such as whether they require childcare and what cost would be prohibitive for them.

School leaders think that if all schools have good childcare options, either at the school or at nearby locations, that they will be desirable for families. That would make it less likely for families to avoid attending some schools.

“We want to enable childcare to be an incentive to integration and not a barrier,” said school board member Christine Kushner.

Wake County has historically been known as a leader in school integration. But schools in the district have become more segregated in recent years with a growing number of high poverty and affluent schools.

The school board agreed in June to set a new diversity goal.

The district is looking at giving every school a score, based on Census data of their students, to determine their economic health. The goal would be to move schools within range of that districtwide target.

School leaders have emphasized that they’re not talking about only using student reassignment to achieve the diversity goal. They’re looking at a combination of options such as improving the academic programs offered at schools as well as access to childcare programs.

Cost of childcare programs a barrier for some families

Virtually every Wake elementary school and most middle schools have before-school and after-school program options, according to the district. Wake schools charge about $500 a year per child for an hour of care in the morning and almost $1,000 a year for two hours of after-school programming.

Board members asked staff to look at whether school-based programs would qualify for federal childcare vouchers.

The YMCA of the Triangle provides programs costing about $1,300 per year for before-school care and $2,000 to $2,300 for after-school care.

The City of Raleigh charges $800 to $900 per year for before-school care and $1,500 to $1,700 per year for after-school programming.

Other smaller providers also offer programming.

About 74 Wake schools serve more than 7,000 children in before-school and after-school programs. The YMCA serves 6,900 children in its programs.

“I don’t want childcare to be a barrier for our integration plan,” said school board member Roxie Cash.

Cash suggested looking at providing childcare service at express bus stop locations, which are places where some magnet school parents drop their children off to catch the bus. Instead of neighborhood bus service, some magnet students have to go to a central location such as a school to catch the bus.

Another area of concern is the childcare options for families who attend year-round schools. Instead of a long summer vacation, their breaks — called “track outs” — are scattered throughout the school year.

The YMCA charges $150 to $200 a week for trackout programs. School officials say that municipal programs sometimes cost less and that the price varies among the many private providers.

Kushner noted how the cost of childcare can discourage lower-income families from attending year-round schools. She said Wake needs to find a way to encourage more low-income families to attend, such as providing specialized programming during the breaks.

School start time also is an issue

School board vice chairman Keith Sutton said the district could serve as an economic engine by encouraging more groups, such as small businesses and churches, to offer trackout programs.

But cost isn’t the only obstacle. Part of the need for childcare programs is due to how most Wake elementary schools start at 9:15 a.m., which isn’t convenient for some families.

“Barriers of bell schedule, distance and wealth deny lower income families equal access to school programs,” said school board member Chris Heagarty.

To save money, Wake structures school times so that the individual buses can make multiple runs in the morning and afternoon. Wake has high schools on the first run at 7:25 a.m. and elementary schools on the last.

School board chairman Jim Martin pointed to how the district’s bell schedules limit the ability of some school employees to get their children into childcare programs.

“If we even made schools work for our own employees, it would work for a lot of other people as well,” he said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.