Over 999,000 readers this year!

Early childhood educator Kendra West builds better beginnings in southwest Wyoming

Bucking trends of insufficient child care capacity and expensive options, West fueled expansion of Evanston’s early childhood landscape.

Executive Director Kendra West opens the door to one of the Evanston Child Development Center’s many classrooms on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

EVANSTON—Kendra West walked briskly through corridors of the newly expanded child development center she helms, opening classroom door after classroom door. As she proceeded, the pupils graduated from infants on a colorful mat to toddlers making paper crafts to preschool students building skills for kindergarten. 

She paused outside a classroom of kids mostly under 2, watching a pair of teachers easily wrangle the toddlers to their seats for an art project. 

“I have an amazing staff,” West said. 

The center, which opened its new wing last fall, is enormous by Wyoming child-care-center standards — and amenities like multiple kitchens and laundry facilities feel particularly plush compared to what West started with in 2001. Back then, the center operated out of four well-worn trailers. 

Today, the 24,000-square-foot facility serves 400 children in this blue-collar western Wyoming city, where high rates of poverty create additional challenges to providing and accessing child care and early education. In a state that suffers from a widespread dearth of child care and early-childhood-education resources, the Evanston Child Development Center is a model of innovation and growth. 

Infants spend time on a colorful rug in the Evanston Child Development Center’s baby room on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Much of the growth is due to West’s stubborn commitment to quality care and education for young children.

“She pours her heart and soul into what’s best for the children,” ECDC Family Services Manager Nicole Christensen said. 

In West’s mind, the cause is too important not to prioritize.

“It’s not just about parents having a place [for child care], but it’s parents having a place that’s safe and quality and that the kids are learning,” West said. “Because this is the time, from zero to 5, when 90% of their brains develop.” 

A life of education 

West, 67, is slight and spry with feathered hair and blue eyes. Growing up in Phoenix in a large family, education was enmeshed in life — her father was a school superintendent. West, one of eight children, wanted to teach from an early age. 

She met her husband in Cheyenne, and transferred from Arizona State University to UW, moving to Wyoming in 1978. She studied elementary education and earned a master’s in early childhood education. Her husband’s job with the Department of Agriculture led them to Evanston. 

She substitute taught for years as she raised her own five children, and then was elected to the school board. 

“And that’s when I really saw how important early childhood was, because we were just struggling as a district” in terms of kindergarten readiness, she said. That put more focus on the question of “What can we do to get these kids ready for school?” 

“And that’s what piqued my interest,” she said.

Executive Director Kendra West at her desk in Evanston’s Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

When she took the job as ECDC’s executive director, she ran with it.

“I really saw a lot of potential,” she said — for helping fill gaps for working parents, for expanding programs, for getting more children into the fold of early childhood education and for improving the quality of what her center could offer.

At the time, the ECDC was solely a day care that operated out of four aging trailers. You could see the ground through the floor in some places, West said. 

“We’re getting out of here,” she recalled thinking on her first day there. “This is not good for kids.’”

At the time, oil was booming and many parents worked long hours. To cover the resulting need, the center got a Department of Family Services grant to extend its hours to midnight. 

That was the beginning of a domino effect of growth, expansion and innovation. After some finagling with the school district and city, the center moved into a new property roughly twice as big on an entire city block, filling it easily. It consisted of four modular buildings pieced together.

“And it was 100 million times better than what we had,” West said. “But we kept growing … We had a huge waitlist, we had so many things happening.” 

In its new space, the center launched preschool programs. Community need demanded even more. 

“Finally we were waking up and realizing how important early childhood was,” she said. “And we were realizing that people had to go to work, they had to have a place and kids deserve quality.”

The center built a new preschool building with the city. Then, with crucial support from Wyoming’s then senior U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, the ECDC obtained in 2015 the state’s first and only Early Head Start Expansion and Child Care Partnership grant. 

It was a game changer, West said. It provides nearly $1 million a year — which translates into smaller teacher ratios, more resources to ensure teacher education, more sophisticated curriculum.

Preschooler Madilyn Liechty shows off her hands to teacher Dolores Synegard while doing an art project at the Evanston Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“The whole purpose was to improve the quality for child care. And it did,” West said.

These days the center offers day care, Early Head Start, preschool and before- and after-school enrichment. The state funds 50% of the preschool programs through its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. 

These programs come with numerous benefits. On this day in January, for example, a nurse was onsite to test the children’s blood for hemoglobin and lead — one of many health requirements stipulated by Early Head start and the others. Unhappy squalls erupted from time to time as the tiny patients were pricked. In the main corridor, West consoled children as they were carried to and from their turns. 

While Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness of pre-K children from low-income families, Early Head Start serves eligible infants, toddlers and pregnant women and their families. 

Not everyone warms to the program, which comes with many regulations. But West sees advantages. It sets high standards for everything from teacher accreditation to accountability, and that keeps the EDCD at the top of the child care game, she said. 

Every one of its infant-toddler early care and education teachers either has a child development associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or is working on their CDA certification. 

A statewide problem 

In late 2019, Wyoming won a $2 million federal grant to conduct a needs assessment and develop a strategic plan for the state’s early childhood education and care landscape. 

When the assessment came out in August 2020, it painted a grim picture, identifying nearly half of the state’s children 5 and under as having vulnerability factors such as teen parents or low family income. 

The assessment identified a 28% child care gap statewide. The gap is calculated by identifying the number of children who potentially need care but whose families cannot reasonably access it. Every single county was determined to have a child care gap. 

“This is a community that works together. And that’s the secret to getting anything done.” KENDRA WEST, EVANSTON CHILD DEVELOPMENT CENTER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Cost was also a challenge. The annual cost of child care in Wyoming is $887 per month for an infant and $751 per month for a 4 year old, according to the assessment. 

“Infant care for one child would take up 14.9% of a median family’s income in Wyoming, significantly more than the US-HHS’ affordability guideline of 7%,” the assessment found. “At least 38% of children age 5 and under are in families that cannot afford child care, or must sacrifice other basic needs to do so.”

A related task force determined Wyoming should streamline agency support of early childhood programs and provide more resources, but expressed doubt about short-term actions.

“Simply put, Wyoming’s early childhood providers are more likely to be successful if they have additional support,” the group’s recommendations read. “The Task Force acknowledges that the current state budget situation makes it unlikely that such support will be provided in the immediate future, but its work can serve as a roadmap for developing the capacity to provide that support.”

Wyoming’s first-ever statewide early childhood strategic plan, which came next, laid a blueprint for creating an informational hub for parents, connecting families with support services and increasing affordability, among others. 

Wyoming is still in the implementation phase of grant activities and a final report will be developed later this year, according to Sheila Ricley, a consultant with the firm that helped develop the plan.

Beckham Staker leaves his craft project to smile for the camera at the Evanston Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Communities still suffer as parents fail to find affordable spots and providers struggle to make ends meet, however. 

“I feel the pressure a lot from local families of like, ‘that’s too expensive, we can’t afford that,’” said Maureen Fox, who runs the Waldorf-style Apple Valley School in Lander. “To be able to pay our teacher salaries and not overextend our families is so hard.” 

State lawmakers brought forth a smattering of unsuccessful bills aimed at addressing the issue in 2023. The body’s education committee studied the issue, but did not produce legislation designed expressly to address early childhood gaps. 

One measure that did address the issue in this year’s session, House Bill 19 – Education savings accounts, failed introduction early in the Wyoming Legislature. The ed committee bill would have created “education savings accounts” for qualified families to spend state funds on costs associated with preschool or non-public-school K-12 education.

A handful of individual lawmakers filed their own version, House Bill 166 – Education savings accounts-1, which passed introduction. The Wyoming Freedom Caucus, meanwhile, is promoting its own ESA bill. The measure would fund non-government school options but not early childhood education.

Going her own way  

West saw the needs firsthand. Instead of waiting for the entire ecosystem to improve, she focused on cultivating her own small corner of the lot. 

“She doesn’t really like the answer ‘no,’” said Quentin Rinker, ECDC’s ​Early Head Start director. “She may have been told ‘no’ on state level, but she went ahead and did it her own way by applying for the Early Head Start grant. So in a way she didn’t really give up. She just went a different route.” 

West has supplemented the Early Head Start partnership with a multitude of small grants, community partnerships or untraditional loans. 

“We pick up these little grants as much as we can, wherever we can,” she said, adding that grants make up 72% of the center’s revenue. 

West had concluded the tour and moved to her office, where she sat at a table. Outside, a group of children played in the finely falling snow. The kids love to lob snowballs at her window to get her attention, she said, grinning.

Shortly after the center won the Early Head Start grant, it was time to grow again. The recent expansion was the result of another outside-the-box approach. The center applied for a seldom-used federal tax credit program to secure a low-interest loan (it will be forgiven in seven years). A USDA loan helped cover the rest of the project cost. That’s in addition to some $1 million in fundraising. 

Even with the state-of-the-art building, one of West’s proudest accomplishments is providing better employment. The center has doubled its minimum starting wage, from $7 an hour to $14. Though “it’s still peanuts,” West said, it helps a goal of creating quality educators.

Executive Director Kendra West speaks to teacher Danielle Asay in Evanston’s Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“You can have the best building in the whole wide world,” she said. “But if you don’t have teachers that love and care about the kids and want to teach, you don’t have anything.”

Combined with an associated early childhood center in the smaller town of Mountain View nearby that serves 120 kids, the ECDC employs 82 people and 21 interns.

Helping what are often single moms build up their education and find career paths empowers them and engenders quality education, West said. 

When West hears of a teenager becoming pregnant, Family Support Manager Christensen said, she springs into action. “She’s like, ‘let’s get them in here. They can finish school, and we’ll do what we need to help them. Let’s get them to succeed.’”

It’s just one example of how hard she works to ensure good outcomes for families, Christensen said. 

“She is the biggest giver. She gives to staff, she gives to kids. She just wants what’s best for everybody,” Christensen said. “She definitely has left a mark here.”

‘A community that works together’

As principal of Clark Elementary in Evanston, Kimber Fessler has seen those marks firsthand. 

About 15 years ago, an early childhood coalition was created to bridge the transition between preschool and kindergarten. At the time, Fessler said, only about 40% of Clark kindergarteners had received preschool education, and readiness was lacking. 

“That was kind of the beginning of our collaboration, and it’s just grown from there,” she said. West “has been a huge supporter of ‘what do we need to do to get kids ready for school?’”

Along with its growing capacity, ECDC has adopted programs that align with the districts. Today, the percentage of kindergarteners with preschool education has jumped to 85%.

Craft time at the Evanston Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“Our district kindergarten data has shown significant results in terms of literacy and literacy growth, because of the foundation that these kids are coming to us with,” Fessler said. They’ve also seen a huge impact on behavior, she said, because those interventions begin in preschool. 

“A lot of credit goes to that collaboration with the ECDC,” Fessler said. 

West has also forged partnerships with entities like the city and Department of Family Services. 

“This is a community that works together,” West said. “And that’s the secret to getting anything done.”

Changing hearts and minds 

West remembers testifying before the Legislature about 20 years ago, trying to explain the importance of sufficient pay for her staff.

“I had one legislator saying, ‘why do you need a degree to change diapers?’” she said. “I was so offended.”

Society has been slow to recognize the importance of early childhood education, and while more people are on board now, she said, there’s room for improvement. A belief that women should be at home with their kids continues to persist at the statehouse, she said, even as it contrasts with much of reality.

“Single moms, people that are in poverty, they have to work, there’s no choice,” West said. Those jobs are often odd hours and low-paying. Subsidizing tuition is essential, she said. 

“Everybody needs help,” West said. “And help is money.”

After all, West said, early intervention prevents bigger societal costs later on.

According to Timothy Bartik, a senior economist with W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, “For each $1 invested in high-quality early childhood programs, a state economy will get a $2 to $3 return on investment, measured by increased jobs or earnings for state residents.” 

In the same report, citing colleagues’ research from 2003, Bartik calculates the total return on investment even more broadly and generously. “For every $1 spent on high-quality early childhood programs, $8 to $16 is returned to society, largely through reduced future costs of crime and government assistance.”

mountain of studies from across the country and beyond reach much the same conclusion: A failure to invest in early childhood education may be penny wise, but it’s pound foolish.

Yet, even with the ECDC’s achievements, staffing is a challenge. As of late January, it had eight open teaching positions, plus more for support staff. Until it fills them, several new classrooms will remain empty. 

Children’s belongings are stored in labeled cubbies at the Evanston Child Development Center on Jan. 25, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“We’ve got the kids,” West said. “We don’t have the staff yet.”

Many states have incentive-based quality-rating programs, municipalities use taxes to infuse early education and others boost educators. 

Rinker of the ECDC, who also sits on Wyoming Early Childhood Governance Task Force, said progress is slow but happening. 

“We are having some statewide legislators that are starting to pay attention to child care” and education, he said. “They are thinking about it at least.” 

Work in progress

Principal Fessler has watched the ECDC grow from “just providing child care, to a staple in our community of what quality child care is.” 

West’s vision was: “‘We can do better for our community and we can do better for our kids,’” Fessler said. “And she’s just kind of worked tirelessly to do that.” 

Nowadays, the ECDC feeds kids breakfast, lunch and two snacks a day. It conducts outdoor learning and offers a place for students to come before school if their parents work early. It hosts family engagement activities, and its staff provides foster care to students in need. 

Now that they are in the new space, West said, walking through halls festooned with ribbons, drawings and photo collages amid the din of young voices, she never wants to move again. But as always, she has ideas for improvement. She hopes to open a community hub for after-school and family programs, for example. 

“We have a lot of work to do here,” she said, looking around an empty room under construction. “It’s a work in progress.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.