The Cheshire Career Center’s child-care program for infants and toddlers, which has provided care to the children of students and SAU 29 staff members for many years, will close at the end of the school year, according to the center’s director.

Samantha Belcourt said students enrolled in the center’s careers in education program historically have provided crucial support for the infant and toddler room, which currently has five children who are all under the age of 2. Due to a change in state requirements for the careers-in-education program, though, these students can no longer gain credit toward their diplomas by working with infants and toddlers, Belcourt said.

“For the careers-in-education program, the state standards have shifted from an early childhood focus to a K-12 focus to give students better opportunities for high-wage, high-skilled career pathways in education,” she said.

The N.H. Department of Education reviewed the Cheshire Career Center’s programs in December, Belcourt said, and found that the careers-in-education program was out of compliance with state standards.

“And so we’re doing what’s necessary to be compliant with the state,” Belcourt said of the decision to end the infant and toddler room, which she announced last Friday in a letter to families who have kids in the program.

If the career center does not comply with the state, it could lose federal funds from the Perkins grant, which provides states money for career and technical education, according to a Feb. 11 letter from Eric Frauwirth, administrator of the state education department’s Bureau of Career Development.

“In order for CTE programs to be eligible for Federal Perkins funds, they are required to meet qualifications detailed in the legislation: high wage, high skill, in-demand careers,” Frauwirth wrote in the letter addressed to Belcourt. “Under these requirements, a program focusing on pre-school and early childhood education would not be eligible, primarily due to the current wage level for employees.”

Child-care workers in New Hampshire make an average of $25,910 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, elementary school teachers in the state make an average of $60,730, a figure that jumps to $62,210 for high school teachers. Experts have cited low wages for early childhood education workers as one of the driving factors behind a lack of affordable, accessible child-care nationwide.

The state education department’s December review of the Cheshire Career Center “identified a compliance concern” with the careers-in-education program since it currently focuses “almost exclusively on preschool and early childhood education,” Frauwirth added. The state required CTE programs focused on early childhood to switch to an emphasis on K-12 education “several years ago,” he wrote.

For the current school year, the career center — which is located at Keene High School and enrolls about 700 students from Keene, Fall Mountain Regional and Monadnock Regional high schools — received about $180,000 in Perkins funds out of a budget of roughly $1.9 million, according to Belcourt, who started in her position last July.

The Cheshire Career Center’s infant and toddler program started around the same time the center opened in the mid-1970s, as a way to help students who became pregnant stay in school, Belcourt said. Only a few students in the past five or six years have used the care provided by the program, she added.

Over the years, the infant and toddler room opened up to N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 staff members, too, who could send their children there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each school day for “very minimal cost,” Belcourt said, though she did not have the specific figure.

Of the five children of staff members currently in the program, two were not planning to return next year, Belcourt added, leaving three children to look for a child-care alternative for the 2021-22 school year.

Along with the 12 students who currently help in the infant and toddler room, the program has two full-time staff members, who will still have jobs with the career center next year, Belcourt said. Funding for two part-time paraprofessionals in the program was not included in the budget for the 2021-22 school year, she added.

The careers-in-education program, one of 17 offered at the career center, consists of two yearlong classes in which students get hands-on experience working with children and study topics such as child-development theory, preparing them for a wide variety of jobs in schools. Other programs at the career center include construction trades, culinary arts, accounting and engineering.

For the roughly 30 students in the career center’s careers-in-education program, Belcourt said SAU 29 has plenty of internal options for them to gain hands-on experience in K-12 schools that will count toward their diplomas.

“We have a lot of opportunities in just our own district,” she said. “We can set our students up to co-teach with a teacher in a grade level that they are interested in. Or, if someone wants to be a special ed case manager, they can work with special ed. We have all sorts of levels in SAU 29 and lots of opportunities to provide.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.