While Shalena Castillo puts together electronics on an assembly line, she feels secure in the fact that her 7-year-old daughter has a safe haven each afternoon at Ms. Helen's Building Blocks Preschool, where her 4-year-old is enrolled in prekindergarten.
In addition to being safe, Ms. Helen's, in Brooksville, is affordable, thanks to the state subsidy that reduces her weekly payment.
But a possible move by regulators to eliminate older children from the program would leave parents like Castillo with few options.
"I don't know if I'll be able to keep my job," said Castillo, a 28-year-old single mom from Brooksville whose job pays $9 an hour and who carpools to make ends meet. "It's going to be very hard."
The news last week that the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando counties is considering limiting the service to younger kids hit parents and providers like an ambush by a schoolyard bully, leaving them surprised and dreading what might come next.
"Ms. Helen told me they were thinking about cutting it," said Crystal Terry, 25, who has a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old. She pays $50 a week for both kids to receive care. The Bright House Networks employee said if she has to pay full price, it would no longer make sense for her to work.
"My brother and sister are both in school," she said. "I have no one to help."
James Farrelly, the director of the coalition that oversees the program, says he doesn't want to be the bad guy. But in a time of dwindling finances and growing waiting lists, the organization whose parent agency's motto is "Children Ready to Learn, Floridians Ready to Earn" must re-examine its priorities.
"We can't continue the way we're going," said Farrelly, whose agency's wait list is hovering around several hundred, most of them ages 5 and younger. If current services are maintained, Farrelly anticipates a wait list of as many as 1,500 by January.
The board will meet Monday to take up the issue. Farrelly has lined up experts from area colleges who will talk about the importance of early childhood education.
"Birth through 5 is your most fertile group of children," said Farrelly, a retired school administrator. "I want to bring the board up to speed as to what research is showing."
Farrelly said the board might opt for a compromise and set the cutoff at a later age, say 8. The decision would not affect children in protective custody or whose parents receive welfare checks. Those kids are required by law to be covered.
"I've been asked to lay out some options," he said.
The coalition served 4,729 children as of March 31, the most recent figures available. Of those, 1,003 — about 21 percent — are school age.
Farrelly says money saved from eliminating older kids can be shifted to take more younger kids off the wait list.
He has vowed to phase in any decision and work with parents to help them find alternatives.
However, providers say the working poor can barely afford care even with the subsidy. Many are in arrears, but providers don't have the heart to turn them away, and therefore take the financial hit.
"With some of these kids, the best hours of their 24-hour day is at our center," said Kevin Nissen, owner of Little People's Preschool in Brooksville.
Bobby Riordan, who oversees the after-school program for the West Pasco Salvation Army, said cutting out the school-age children would be "devastating" and result in more latchkey children. His agency, which already operates on shoestring, might have to look for new ways to help parents.
"We'll work with them," he said, "but there's only so much we can do."