Here's What Black Parents Need in a Preschool, According to a Mom and Early Childhood Education Expert

The process of finding a high-quality preschool looks different for Black parents, who often face challenges around both diversity and affordability. Still, it's possible to overcome them.

Busy preschool children enjoy their time in daycare
Photo: Getty Images

"Would you fight a bear to save my child's life?" This is the first question that came to mind for Sunshine, a Tennessee mother of two, when she was touring potential daycares. It may sound comedic but in reality, finding childcare as a Black parent is a journey of stress, frustration, compromise, and a lack of transparency.

I set out to talk to Black parents about their childcare choices with the hope that not everyone is as concerned as Sunshine and that somewhere out there is a Black family that has not been swallowed up while navigating the childcare terrain.

The conversations surrounding securing childcare for Black caregivers can be described as "disappointing and a scam," as Sharmeka, a mom to a preschooler in Atlanta, shared. What all parents want to know is if, when faced with the challenge, would a childcare provider "fight a bear" to save their child?

I chatted with six parents from across the U.S. who identify as Black mothers about their childcare situations ranging from Mother's Day Out, nanny shares, early learning centers, at-home daycares, learning pods, and private preschools. Their backgrounds are diverse, and yet, the same themes emerged in every discussion. We want our children to feel seen, loved, and taken care of in a way that gives both parents—and their kiddos—autonomy and agency. Here are some key factors to consider when searching for a childcare provider that can help you get there.

Plan for the Dreaded Waitlist

Before the search even begins there is timing to consider. Hefty application fees, childcare tours compromised by COVID-19, and daycares that feel like a business where "your child is just another child" all impact how and if Black families find care for their children. But the two words that the moms interviewed found to be the most grim during their searches were "wait list."

In 2017 The Bump shared that most child care facilities have a waitlist of 9-12 months. When Nia Avery, 40, was expecting her son, she began scouring childcare centers "high and low" in Louisiana via word of mouth, cold calls, and Google searches with the goal of getting on a waitlist while she was still pregnant. Even with an early start, Nia and many of the other moms were still met with ambiguous waitlist processes that required persistence.

In some states, like Georgia and the District of Columbia, there is not only a waitlist but sometimes a lottery system to secure a preschool spot. Janaé, 36, a mother of four who lives in Washington, D.C. says, "In DC, preschool is not mandatory and entry to public preschool is based on a lottery. If your child doesn't get accepted then you have to continue with daycare until Kindergarten or go to a private preschool. Private preschool is very expensive and for the reasons we previously discussed—that just makes [free preschool] inaccessible for many Black urban parents."

Public preschool is a free and accessible option many Black families lean on in order to ensure their child is academically and emotionally enriched. Childcare can be an uphill battle for Black families and one of the factors that makes the climb harder is time and availability of a childcare provider and the lack of transparency surrounding how enrollment occurs. These lotteries have incredibly narrow windows and the transparency about how to navigate the system is not clear.

With timing and transparency in mind:

  1. Find out about your parental leave options as soon as possible and backward planning from this time to decide when would be best to secure childcare.
  2. Ask upfront, "How long is the waitlist, and do you believe it is feasible my child will have a spot?" Get this response in writing before paying any application fees.
  3. Find out about your state's free childcare options and lottery systems. Assemble all of the application and enrollment information ahead of time.


"The proof was in the pudding—the teachers were all white, the kids were all white, and the resources and materials did not reflect my culture and beliefs."

— nia AVERY

Make a Childcare Wishlist

Nadine Bah, 32, a mother of two children in Baltimore, says it was important to know that her children would feel at home in their childcare setting. Sharmeka says she wanted her daughter to be able to see herself and feel good about who she is at her potential preschool. Nia wanted her son to have a loving space to explore STEM, his choices, and nature. Janaé voiced the need to trust who she sends her kids to. Every parent I spoke with noted the need for diversity and a culturally-rich curriculum.

Before setting out on your search, consider your values and beliefs and how they will impact what you want in a childcare provider. This can translate to the importance you place on a variety of different factors.

Some of them might include:

1. Does the facility have natural light? An outdoor playground? Appropriate play materials?

2. Are there any staffing factors that might affect my child's education? Think of things like diversity, teacher-to-student ratios, accreditations, retention, and student turnover.

3. Are there any diversity and inclusion initiatives?

4. What do discipline, self-expression, and independence look like there?

5. What are the school's hours and availability?

6. How does the school communicate with parents? Is it via an app, a daily email, or a quick chat at pick-up and drop-off?

It may take an extensive search but Black families shouldn't feel like they have to compromise when looking for quality childcare. The setting should feel like home: safe, fun, and a balm to your kiddos' identity.

Consider Diversity and Curriculum

The biggest push and pulls for Black families are affordability and diversity. Should I send my child somewhere that is a premiere childcare center that may lack diversity and inclusion initiatives? Or should I send my child somewhere that is affordable, where the center may lack the bells and whistles and aesthetics that I prefer, but there are children and providers who look like my child?

Through my conversations with the moms, it became clear that Black parents feel the need to take extra consideration(s) when selecting childcare because of the implicit and cultural biases Black children and Black families experience in childcare and American schooling.

Nia says she would always ask centers about diversity, but then she stopped asking on the tours because she could see it—"the proof was in the pudding—the teachers were all white, the kids were all white, and the resources and materials did not reflect my culture and beliefs," she says.

Since Nia did not see what she wanted in a center, she and her community of friends started a learning pod where their beliefs of love, care, STEAM, nurturing, autonomy, and agency run through the care of their kids. Nia admits that it is a privilege to be able to do this, but for those who do not have the flexibility here are some considerations when trying to decide how diversity and culture can inform your childcare decision(s).

  1. Forwardly ask childcare providers what their initiatives towards diversity, inclusion, and culturally-rich learning are.
  2. Take a look at the school calendar and curriculum to observe what holidays and events they prioritize.
  3. Be curious about how they let families and the community into the school to create a bridge between learning and holistic care.
  4. Ask about the cultural make-up of the staff and students and furthermore ask to speak to the Black parents to know what their experiences have been.

Don't Be Discouraged by Cost

I saved this for last because it is one of the harder topics to broach within childcare, especially for Black families. And yet it is the leading reason why the gap continues to widen in early childhood education. The average cost of childcare in the United States is $1,300 a month and continues to rise.

Early childhood education and care is a site of racial inequity and symbolizes systems of oppression. Many early childcare centers do not provide financial aid because they believe childcare is "not a necessity but rather an opportunity," as the preschool director at Little Gates at Louise S. McGehee School in New Orleans told me when I asked about scholarships.

There is an opportunity gap in quality childcare for Black families due to societal inequities, wage discrepancies, and a lack of care in low-income neighborhoods. One of the moms interviewed described the experience of touring schools that she would never be able to afford for her child as "heart-numbing."

Here are some tips I gathered when trying to finance childcare:

  1. Every state and city have some form of child care assistance and/or a childcare scholarship that works with particular daycare and learning centers. Every state also now offers some form of free preschool through universal preschool initiatives. Find out if you qualify.
  2. Always ask centers about their financial and scholarship options and if they do not have funding, ask them if they know of any providers who do offer financial aid.
  3. Lastly, if there is a provider that you have fallen in love with, be open and honest about your situation to determine a payment plan that is sustainable.

A parent's instinct is a sixth sense that is acquired after you become a caregiver. You would fight a bear to save your child and for this reason, you have the knowledge, power, and ability to trust your gut to pick the best setting for your child. Childcare will be one of the many obstacles you overcome.

Dr. Maureen Nicol is a doctoral graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University, the mother of a toddler, and has taught early childhood education for over eight years. Maureen is passionate about families and children having access to quality early childhood education and playful learning.

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