Addressing daycare deserts and other challenges


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Mesa Mayor John Giles convened a task force of early childhood education experts that included Allison Mullady, clinical assistant professor and director of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool.  Mullady is an integral part of the early childhood program at ASU and serves on various committees throughout the community, the state and beyond. She has spent more than two decades working in this area and advocating for adequate funding and a complete understanding of the necessary resources and skills for preschool teachers.

The task force studied preschool education options in Mesa, Arizona and found ‘daycare deserts’ – large areas with limited options for preschool. This was a problem, in addition to issues of affordability and quality in the few preschools that exist in the area. Enrollment options for early education in Mesa do not match the number of young children in parts of the city, and that pattern, Mullady said, is true across the nation in various pockets.

Mullady said the task force was created after the mayor became concerned about an increasing number of the city’s incoming kindergarten students having lower skill levels than those of five-year-olds in previous years. She noted there are inconsistencies in what people think preschool educators should know and be able to do. She explained the vast differences between what is required of preschool teachers in Arizona, for example, and what Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College requires for early childhood education certification.

In an Arizona-licensed preschool, a lead teacher, one who plans and coordinates activities and may have classroom assistants, must be 18 years old and have at least six months of experience working with preschool-aged children. That experience is loosely
defined, and the criteria could be met with six months of babysitting or volunteering in a church nursery.

In contrast, graduates of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College complete intensive coursework with rich clinical experiences. The program leads to dual certification in early childhood and early childhood special education. In their junior year, students complete a minimum of 100 hours in a supervised clinical rotation in school settings.

This all occurs prior to the senior year residency, known as iTeachAZ, which is a full year of student teaching. This rigorous program is the only one of its kind in Arizona, and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College has received national recognition for its number of graduates who remain in the teaching profession.  

When looking at preschools across the state and beyond, Mullady said access, affordability and quality are the three pillars of early childhood education. “Very often, if a facility offers one or two of those, it is challenging to provide the third. An affordable preschool with quality programs often will have a long wait list, limiting access. Typically, quality schools cost more to operate, contributing to higher costs for families; and access is an issue,” Mullady explained. “We hope that our work in Mesa will have an impact and inspire others to review their local offerings and consider prioritizing early childhood education.”

Two recommendations from the task force that Mesa city officials are already implementing are: appointing a champion for early childhood education on the city staff; and creating an early childhood advisory board to guide change and plan for the future of early childhood education across the city.

Mullady said that the mayor and city officials in Mesa are encouraging a partnership with ASU’s early childhood programs in the future and want to extend opportunities for children in Mesa. “For quite a while we’ve known how critical the first five years of life are to children’s development. Now I see a growing number of leaders in business and politics embracing early childhood education because they are discovering the very real impact this has on the health and economic development of their communities.”