As a child of refugees from Southeast Asia, childcare and family support were critical in keeping Yensing Sihapanya’s family of seven rooted in San Francisco.
Now, as the executive director of Family Connections Center, a nonprofit that operates two child care centers in the city, she provides those same resources to some 1,500 San Franciscans, many of whom are growing up in situations very similar to her upbringing.
“We live in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, but at the same time, there are so many families that are still struggling,” Sihapanya said.
As part of its effort to answer the call, San Francisco is looking to create what it bills as a first-in-the-nation city department that integrates support and funding streams for early child education and wraparound resources for their families. It’s an administrative shuffle that, according to its proponents, will bring the city closer to offering universal childcare.
The proposed Department of Early Childhood would merge the existing Office of Early Child Care and Education (OECE)—which supports childhood education between the ages of 0 and five—and First Five San Francisco, which directs state tobacco tax revenue to fund early childhood education.
Legislation to create the department, which was sponsored by Mayor London Breed and co-sponsored by District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, was passed unanimously by the Rules Committee and will be heard by the full board at their meeting Tuesday.
“I think the expense of housing and child care are obviously challenges being faced by families,” Melgar said. “But it’s also a fact that we are so much ahead of the curve compared to cities around the country when it comes to these issues and creating the infrastructure to make universal child care happen.”
The department’s primary duties would be strengthening the early child care and education workforce, establishing family support programs, boosting outreach to needy families and measuring the outcomes of programs.
The legislation creates the legal framework for the merger and sets up its leadership and advisory board. The current director of OECE, Ingrid Mezquita, will be made the department’s acting director until the mayor names a new head. The First Five Commission, which is responsible for the roughly $6 million the city receives annually from state tobacco tax revenue, will also get three additional members.
Melgar described the new department as the latest step in the city’s long road to universal childcare.
That effort dates back decades. In 2004, voters passed Prop H, a ballot measure to expand preschool to 4-year-olds. Other milestones included the passage of so-called “Baby Prop. C” in 2018, which funded additional early child education initiatives through a commercial rent tax. That revenue is being used, in part, to boost minimum early educator salaries in city-funded programs to $28 an hour.
Sihapanya said putting childcare-related funds and services under one umbrella could help overcome bureaucratic roadblocks that became obvious during the pandemic, when many families struggled.
“One of the big things we saw during Covid is how many departments work in silos even if they’re working on the same goal,” Sihapanya said. She used the example of multiple intake forms with the same information submitted to different departments, which can be burdensome for the families her organization serves.
Since the pandemic, Family Connections Center has seen a growing number of working-class and middle-class families needing help, particularly in light of high inflation and housing prices. Sihapanya cited a recent poll that found nearly 75% of San Franciscans called it a major problem that families were leaving the city.
“Child care is a backbone for our economy and often is the thing that allows many women to go to school or get a job,” said Sihapanya.
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