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Rural Spotlight: A Technical College and Child Care Center Unite in Cheraw, South Carolina

August 11, 2023
Rural Spotlights
Northeastern Technical College logo with self-portrait drawings by students surrounding.

Compass Point Preschool serves 3- and 4-year-old students in Cheraw, South Carolina, and is located on Northeastern Technical College's (NETC) campus. The preschool leverages a strong partnership with NETC and state resources to make high-quality child care accessible and affordable for both parents enrolled at NETC and working parents in the community.

Community and History

Cheraw is located in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. It is about a 75-mile drive southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina, and 90 miles northeast from Columbia, South Carolina. It is located on the Great Pee Dee River and the birthplace of jazz great, Dizzy Gillespie. Schaeffler Group USA, Walmart, Black+Decker and Highland Industries are among the top 20 largest employers in the area.

Early childhood programs in the county are supported by Chesterfield County First Steps. First Steps is a South Carolina agency tasked with preparing children from birth to age 5 to enter kindergarten. It administers statewide programs related to early care and education, health, parenting, and school transition; allocate grant funding throughout the state; lead early childhood research; and develop resources for parents of young children. In addition to its statewide organization, each county within South Carolina is served by a local or regional First Steps office.

The Opportunity

Chesterfield County First Steps identified a gap in child care services and knew that many children in the county were not attending any formal child development program. Several communities in the county are considered child care deserts, where the number of families in need of child care exceeds the slots available.

A shortage of local child care workers is one reason why Chesterfield County's child care facilities have been limited or even fully shut down. For example, there was a large church day care in Chesterfield County that served over 100 children from birth to age 4. "They were forced to shut their doors because they did not have a director and could not find staffing. Not enough people are going into the field," said Melisa Johnson, dean of Arts and Sciences, at Northeastern Technical College.

In 2016, Johnson and a former early childhood development instructor at NETC proposed the idea of an on-campus child care facility to NETC President Kyle Wagner. Around the same time, Karen Martini-Waller, executive director of First Steps in Chesterfield County, identified the need for an additional child care facility in the center of the county. Over the next two years, the team identified space on campus that could be converted to a child care center, renovated the space to comply with South Carolina design regulations, and went through the state's inspection and licensure process. The new preschool, called Compass Point, opened its 4-year-old (4k) program in 2018, and the 3-year-old (3k) program started in late February of this year. The two programs currently have the capacity to enroll 27 children.

The Strategy

Chesterfield County First Steps and NETC were natural partners for developing a new child care solution in Chesterfield County because their organizational goals aligned. From Chesterfield County First Steps' perspective, Compass Point provides high-quality child care placement for some of the county's most vulnerable children. The location on NETC's campus makes the program easily accessible for current NETC students (who get enrollment priority) and parents who live or work in Cheraw. At the same time, NETC benefits from having an on-site internship placement opportunity for students in their Early Childhood Education training program. In fact, the two current 4k classroom aides at Compass Point are graduates of the NETC program, speaking to the reciprocal nature of the partnership.

Compass Point strategically uses several measures to mitigate operational expenses and keep tuition affordable. Because it is located on campus, NETC covers Compass Point's overhead costs. Compass Point further reduces expenses by partnering with the Chesterfield County school district to provide meals and snacks to children at no cost to the center.

Since tuition may still be out of reach for some parents, Compass Point works to connect families with additional financial resources. Some parents apply for and receive child care subsidies — also known in South Carolina as ABC Vouchers — and the South Carolina Department of Social Services Child Care Scholarship benefits. In addition to state resources, NETC provides a community grant to help with Compass Point tuition. The overall funding approach is so effective that, according to Johnson, "Depending on the parents' income level, having a child at Compass Point may not cost them anything."

While Compass Point is committed to reducing costs, it also remains dedicated to providing high-quality services and providing a nurturing environment. Instructors have noticed social and emotional setbacks in their students following the COVID-19 pandemic, but also have seen significant growth in those areas since the beginning of the year. Staff are mindful that children may come from household environments or situations that are chaotic or stressful. According to Martini-Waller, "To know that this is their seven-and-a-half hours of safety and haven, getting nurturing and affection and all those things that children need while they're here — just makes it all worthwhile."

Bin of books for students located at Northeastern Technical College.

Erika Bell

Key Outcomes

The benefits of high-quality, accessible, affordable child care accrue to both enrolled children and their parents:

  • Locating an early care and education opportunity on-site at NETC has removed a barrier for prospective students. Students with young children can focus more of their attention on pursuing career training opportunities. To date, NETC estimates that access to affordable, on-site child care was a decisive factor for 10 to 15 parents who ultimately decided to enroll as NETC students.
  • As NETC's early care and education department continues to grow, students benefit from being able to complete the observational component of their coursework at Compass Point.
  • Children enrolled at Compass Point demonstrate both academic and developmental progress relative to where they started the year. Compared to children who do not attend a pre-K program, Compass Point students score higher on Kindergarten Readiness Assessments.
  • NETC awards children graduating from the 4k program with "their first scholarship" of $250 for future use at NETC to encourage them to continue their studies after high school graduation. In this way, both Compass Point and NETC contribute directly to students' lifelong learning.

Lessons Learned

  • Let the need guide what you do. Identifying gaps in resources helps persuade stakeholders and community leaders to develop solutions to addressing community needs.
  • Enduring partnerships are based on mutual benefit and mission alignment. For example, from a college's perspective, partnering with a child care center is beneficial for both their students and the community.
  • Strategic partnerships allow early care and education programs to focus more attention on creating a high-quality educational environment as opposed to administrative tasks.
  • Facilitate complementary resources or practices to support program goals. For instance, developing transportation solutions for families makes Compass Point even more accessible. Providing high-quality 3k and 4k education prepares children for kindergarten, and engaging parents prepares them to remain actively involved throughout their child's education.

Melissa Johnson, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern Technical College, and Karen Martini-Waller, Executive Director of Chesterfield County First Steps


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"First Steps could not have opened, operated, and sustained a child care center without the important partnerships that we have developed with Northeastern Technical College and Chesterfield County School District. Partnerships help us leverage resources and pool resources that are needed for quality child care, which is very costly." — Karen Martini-Waller, Executive Director of Chesterfield County First Steps