Solving The Childcare Crisis In Rural Alaska

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Finding quality, affordable childcare for young children can be a challenge anywhere in Alaska. It’s especially difficult in rural Alaska’s hub communities – where the cost of living is high and space is often hard to find.  It becomes a factor in attracting professionals to jobs at regional health and other organizations. In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, Anne Hillman takes a look at how some communities are trying to meet the challenge.

ANNE HILLMAN: At Ilisagvik College in Barrow, president Pearl Brower tries to concentrate on an interview, but she’s a little distracted:

[Sound of baby… “Do you want to go sit with auntie?”]

Her 10-month old daughter is crawling into the hallway; she had a babysitter problem this morning:

[Pearl Brower] “We don’t have a formalized daycare here so that makes it very difficult because its all personal caregivers.”

Brower is not alone. April Blevins struggled to find childcare when she first moved to Bethel, where there are currently no licensed childcare facilities for children under three.

[April Blevins] “And when I went to visit babysitters, you would see up to 12 children with one provider and in my mind it was just not a safe, or an environment I would want my child in.”

So a cousin came to live with her.

[Blevins] “And then the following year, me and about four other friends hired a nanny through a nanny service and she came up and we provided housing and she kept our five children.”

Later, Blevins did find home care she was happy with.

Marcey Bish, childcare program manager for the state, says the biggest hurdle for many providers getting licensed is background checks: every person living in the home must pass them, not just the primary care provider.

[Marcey Bish] “So a lot times there’s barriers that come up as part of those checks that do not allow somebody or a family member to move forward with the licensing process.”

And many people do home day care for only a few years, while their children are young. Child care centers struggle to be able to pay decent wages; staff turnover is high and it can be hard to find a qualified person to be the facility administrator under licensing rules. Stephanie Berglund is director ofthread, Alaska’s childcare referral agency; she says it’s not just a rural problem. Statewide, most parents can’t afford to pay what it takes to run an independent, quality early learning childcare facility.

Those are statewide issues. Even in urban areas, the best childcare programs are subsidized by employers. That’s how April Blevins is trying to meet the need in Bethel; she works for the Lower Kuskokwim School district and manages its “Busy Bees” child care program for children ages 3-5. School district employees have preference for spots at the school, and the waiting list is long. LKSD is opening a second facility, for children as young as 6 weeks, and expects it to be full right away. The staff is employed by the district, so they have better benefits than an independent facility could offer. And they have donated space:

[Blevins] “If it hadn’t been for the Bethel alternative school offering us a space, it would have been difficult for us to expand.” 

Families in Barrow and other North Slope communities are grappling with two problems: a lack of childcare facilities and a loss of language. So staff atIlisagvik College created a combined solution – the Language Nest, an early childhood language immersion program.

[Classroom sound – singing Row Your Boat in Inupiaq.]

Teacher Tuuqlak Diaz sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in Inupiaq in a room that looks like a typical preschool, except every bit of decoration, from the toy caribou to the dolls in the tent, reflect life on the North Slope.

[Tuuqlak Diaz] “The language, it’s going to be instilled in their hearts in the beginning and it’s going to go along as they become adults.”  

The Language Nest just opened and eventually will accept students ages 0 to 3. While at the school the kids will only listen to and speak Inupiaq.

[Martha Stackhouse] “You just say simple things, simple commands that you usually use in the home and that’s what we’re gonna do.”  

That’s teacher Martha Stackhouse. She says that by teaching the children Inupiaq with words that they would typically use at home, they will also teach parents the language. And kids will only be accepted to the program if their parents commit to being involved in the classroom at least 8 hours per month.

Program director Mary Sage says the Language Nest is part of Ilisagvik’s larger Inupiaq Early Learning Degree.

[Mary Sage] “Under the business track there will be some courses to help them establish their own language nest in their home anywhere on the North Slope.”

Future teachers can earn school credit by working in the current Language Nest, and the college will teach how to get state daycare licenses. The North Slope Borough is also working to address the need, with a childcare task force looking at re-opening a borough-run facility. Across the state, as new health care centers and school buildings are built, advocates are pushing to add to the plans, to make space for the care and education of the very youngest Alaskans.

This reporting series is a production of the Content Producers Guild and is made possible through funding from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement program. For more photos and information please visit

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Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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