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Smart Start giving grows

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By Todd Cohen

LILLINGTON, N.C. — Faced with limited resources and growing demand, the Harnett County Partnership for Children is working to raise more money and expand services for preschoolers throughout the county.

One of 81 local partnerships funded by the state through its Smart Start program to boost early-childhood development, the Lillington-based Harnett Partnership opened six years ago and mainly contracts for services focusing on health, family support and early-childhood education.

The nonprofit, which employs six people and two Campbell University students who volunteer as interns, operates with an annual budget of $2 million, oversees 13 programs and last year served 3,000 children.

The state provides all funding for the agency, which under state law must match 10 percent of those dollars. To provide that match, the partnership counts mainly on parent fees and the value of volunteer time.

Local Smart Start agencies throughout the state receive, on average, just over half the funds they need to serve all eligible children, or those from birth to age five, in the counties or groups of counties they serve, says Lisa Familo, executive director.

In Harnett County, which has 8,500 eligible children, the agency receives just over one-third of the funds it needs, she says, and would need $810,000 more to receive the state average, and four times its current budget to serve all eligible children in the county.

Required by state law to spend 70 percent of its budget on early-childhood programs, the partnership contracts with agencies and provides child-care subsidies for families, with parents paying up to roughly 10 percent of the costs of childcare, based on a sliding scale tied to their income.

Subcontractor Easter Seals UCP North Carolina, for example, employs consultants who assess childcare facilities and help them develop plans to increase their quality.

Improving the quality of child-care facilities ties in to a new program provided by subcontractor Child Care Resource & Referral, a unit of N.C. Cooperative Extension that offers a bonus to teachers in child-care centers and homes that receive top ratings from the state Division of Child Development.

“One of the biggest problems we have in Harnett County is that our child-care teachers are paid very poorly,” Familo says.

Some of those teachers earn as little as $6.50 an hour, compared to $9 or $10 paid to some teachers in Wake and Cumberland counties, she says.

The supplement aims to help reach the agency’s goal of increasing to $8 an hour the pay for all child-care teachers in the county.

Another program is administering Harnett’s More at Four program, a statewide initiative to provide preschool for “at-risk” four-year-olds, mainly those from low-income families, but also including those with developmental disabilities or who speak English as a second language.

This year, the partnership is contracting with five centers that provide seven classrooms for roughly 135 More at Four children.

The agency also contracts with N.C. Cooperative Extension to assign paid educators to visit families and provide intensive parenting education, and with E.H. Developmental Associates in Broadway to screen children at licensed child-care facilities, providing the basis for interventions the children will need to address developmental needs before entering kindergarten.

Familo hopes to secure grants to begin a literacy program and to hire a bilingual coordinator to reach out to Hispanic families.

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