As Michelle Puckett, Batesville Preschool director, has witnessed firsthand, early care and education set the stage for children’s long-term cognitive development, school achievement, and overall success. Today, she combines this real-world knowledge and decade of experience as an educator to help Independence County, an inaugural Excel by Eight (E8) Community. With support from the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Michelle and her fellow steering committee members are tackling county-wide priorities—food security, substance use prevention, poverty alleviation, child care availability and kindergarten readiness—to improve educational and health outcomes for local kids and families. Learn more in our Q&A below:

What do you see as the most pressing gaps in Independence County’s resource grid?
Like the majority of communities across Arkansas, Independence County lacks reliable access to quality infant and toddler care programs. If we want all children to thrive, I believe our state must focus on expanding the availability of these services, providing adequate funding, and recognizing the critical value of our childhood educators.

Why is quality an important metric for early care and education?
A quality early care program provides a strong foundation for future educational experiences. Highly-qualified teachers, even on the infant level, can use their tools, standards, and curriculum to establish fundamental practices. These educators help enhance children’s social-emotional skills; promote emerging talents; and focus on areas in need of improvement. They are able to connect qualifying individuals with early intervention services, such as speech or occupational therapy. Access to these types of resources are critical to closing the gap between students with developmental delays and their peers.

What do you see as the main workforce challenge for child care providers in Arkansas?
Currently, child care centers and providers must be creative to meet the state’s guidelines and maintain effective teacher-child ratios. Arkansas should focus on securing additional funding sources to support these programs. Otherwise, centers will be forced to raise tuition. In the future, I believe we should make it a priority to provide a living wage for child care employees and make it affordable for all members of the public to access quality programs.

Batesville recently expanded its care options to include infants and toddlers. Why is this service essential for local families?
The Batesville School District is dedicated to empowering all students, starting with the youngest members of “Pioneer Nation.” We understand if parents do not have reliable, quality childcare, they are unable to work and contribute to our community. So, we decided to tackle the availability gap for infant and toddler care head-on. Our center is a Level 3-rated Better Beginnings program, which allows us to accept childcare vouchers from those under the poverty guideline. We are open 12 hours, from 6 a.m.-6 p.m., to better meet working families’ schedules. We currently only have four infant and toddler rooms, but I believe this is a huge leap in the right direction.

Want to learn more about Independence County’s efforts? Click here.