The wait list for child care at Red Caboose is over 80 children long.

But as parents across the city grapple with high costs, full centers, and a striking lack of care options especially in the city’s downtown and near east side, there’s a glimmer of hope ahead.

In partnership with Movin’ Out Inc., Red Caboose has broken ground on a new, $7 million center near Union Corners that would expand their current capacity three-fold to serve a total of 150 children.

The nonprofit child care center has been operating in downtown Madison for 50 years, and the timing of the move is not lost on Red Caboose’s Executive Director Jason Anderson, who says the anniversary, coupled with a “new building, a new future,” makes for a “really beautiful combination.”

“I think everyone recognizes that it’s time for a change and time to be in a space that is worthy of our families and our staff and kids,” says Anderson, noting the current facility on Williamson Street, while beloved, has seen better days.

In addition to adding more classrooms for the ages Red Caboose already serves, the center plans to add at least one infant classroom. Anderson says the current plan would expand care to babies as young as 12 weeks old, though that is not yet finalized.

Only a handful of centers across the city accept children under 1, and Anderson says he’s excited to fill the gap. A majority of the children on Red Caboose’s waitlist are under 2, and the center gets numerous inquiries about infant care even though they don’t currently provide it.

This gap in care — while most pronounced for newborns — affects most families with kids under 5. Based on 2019 data, the Bipartisan Policy Center found an almost 35 percent gap in the need and supply of care in Madison — with 22,320 spots available and a potential need of 33,310.

With demand at an all-time high, Anderson says he isn’t worried about filling open slots. “It’s not going to be an issue of enrollment,” he says. But staffing is another matter.

Red Caboose has 12 teachers now and will need up to eight more to fully staff the new center. Says Anderson: “The pace at which we grow into the new building will be dependent on hiring.”

In addition to child care, the new building will also address another urgent need in Madison: access to affordable housing.

While Red Caboose will occupy the entire first floor of the new building, the top three floors will be home to 38 affordable apartments managed and operated by Movin’ Out — a nonprofit that finds housing for people and families with disabilities.

Eight of the units will be reserved for people and families with disabilities. The other 30 will be affordable units — addressing what Movin’ Out Executive Director Kathryne Auerback calls a “significant shortage” of affordable housing in the Madison area.

“This is a fairly small project, but every additional unit of affordable housing makes a difference, and certainly makes a difference for the family members that live there,” Auerback says.

While the arrangement is unique to Madison, it’s not the first such partnership in the United States.

Bridge Housing, headquartered in San Francisco, has been developing and operating affordable housing with combined services like child care for years in California, Oregon and Washington.

The new building will borrow some of Bridge’s tactics — Red Caboose will set aside child care spots for families living in the building, and there are talks of giving preference to Red Caboose staff who want to live in the building as well.

For Auerback, combining affordable housing with affordable child care is one step in lifting people out of poverty.

“We know the long-term impact of [high-quality, early child care], and what a difference that can make in people’s lives in the long term. It’s the same level of impact for having a safe, quality, affordable, stable place to live,” Auerback says. “And so the ripple effect of this project is really almost unlimited.”

Both Movin’ Out and Red Caboose work to make their services available across income levels, and Auerback said that dedication to equity makes the partnership a natural fit.

Red Caboose already offers a sliding scale and scholarship opportunities for families — 80 percent of current families receive tuition support, and 32 percent of students come from low-income families who often struggle to find and afford high-quality child care.

It’s that focus on equity that drew Adam Schabow and Carrie Simon to Red Caboose when they were looking for care for their now 3-year-old daughter Zoe.

“Red Caboose is such an inclusive environment that I think that’s really a benefit to her,” Simon says. “There’s such diversity among the kids there, everything from socioeconomic to racial diversity and neurocognitive diversity…and there’s just this really great sense of community of embracing people, no matter what, and figuring out how to coexist.”

Zoe should have the chance to transition to the new building when it opens, and her parents are looking forward to seeing how much more Red Caboose can accomplish with a new space.

“If they could be doing that quality work in a purpose-built space that is new and shiny and designed for the hopes and dreams they have for the way they could do programming, that’s going to just take them to the next level,” Simon says.

Colin Stroud agrees. His 3-year-old son Soren goes to Red Caboose, as did Soren’s sister Eve before going to kindergarten this school year.

Stroud says the current space is a “little treasure” inside, aided by the staff’s creativity, but the building has its limitations.

“You see what the staff over the years have been able to do to transform this space into something that is really magical,” he says. “I think it shows the ingenuity and resourcefulness of this organization. Having a facility that is actually up-to-date will reflect what they’re able to do and offer to families and the community.”

Fundraising for the new building is still underway, with Red Caboose needing to raise about $1.5 million more for the new center. Anderson says they’ve come a long way, but have a bit to go to “make this all happen.” 

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