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High school graduate eyes child care career path in South Dakota

If the shortage of providers is going to change, it will require a lot of people like Cordelia Rieck, who has chosen to pursue the career her mother started 20 years ago.

High school graduate eyes child care career path in South Dakota
Cordelia Rieck helps with her mother's family day care business. She plans to pursue an early childhood degree at Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer / SDPB)

Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of stories on children that Jackie Hendry, producer and host of SDPB's "South Dakota Focus" is writing for South Dakota News Watch. Each month, she previews the upcoming show.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Thousands of South Dakota high schoolers are planning their first steps into adulthood this graduation season. Some may follow relatives into the family business of farming, law or teaching. Others, like Cordelia Rieck of Sioux Falls, plan to join the family business of raising families.

The number of day cares in South Dakota has almost halved since 2009, from 1,195 to 646 in 2020, according to the Kids Count Data Center. As conversations about the lack of child care access and affordability intensify across the state, the Rieck family is among the dozens of families in South Dakota that run in-home or family day cares. That journey began years before Cordelia was born.

After Karen Rieck and husband Justin moved to Sioux Falls, they went to see a movie. Karen had a few years of experience with child care at that time.

Karen Rieck holds her baby on a couch.
Karen Rieck runs Mrs. Karen's House Childcare and Preschool out of her family's home in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer / SDPB)

"Oddly enough, we had gone to see 'Daddy Day Care' in the theater," said Karen. "And that's what got my brain going. Like, 'Really, you can do this. You can do child care out of your home. You don't have to run a center.'"

A week later, the Riecks were creating a business plan. That was 21 years ago.

Today, Mrs. Karen's House Childcare and Preschool is a state-registered family day care with capacity for a dozen children. When the "South Dakota Focus" team visited in April, the children's ages ranged from 6 years to a pair of 5-month-old twins. Karen said the in-home setting emphasizes a feeling of family, which was attractive when she and her husband started the venture.

"Family in general is important to us, and we want to be able to instill that with the kids that we help raise," she said.

In fact, a connection made through one of their clients helped the Riecks expand their own family. They'd previously been told having children would be difficult, if not impossible, based on some health complications. Then, in the early days of their child care operation, they watched the child of a pharmacy assistant.

"She's the one who introduced me to a physician who was able to figure out what was wrong," Karen remembered with a smile. "Needed some help, but I have four kids now."

'I've always had somebody to play with!'

Those kids have grown up alongside the kids who attend Mrs. Karen's House Childcare and Preschool. The Reicks' firstborn is Cordelia. She graduates from Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School this month.

"She was born into family child care," said Karen. "We literally had her on a Thursday at 6:27 p.m. and our doors were open on Monday."

"Well, I've never had a bad experience of going to somebody else's day care," Cordelia explained matter-of-factly. "I always had somebody to play with!"

Cordelia still plays and helps with the day care kids before and after school.

"I come back and all of them, they bombard me at the stairs. I don't even make it up the stairs, and they're just all over me. It's great," she said.

When it came time to decide what to do after high school, Cordelia knew one thing for sure: "I just wanted to help people. I didn't care how."

South Dakota day care regulations

As a child, she'd considered being a doctor or veterinarian. Today, she shudders at the math and science involved.

"And I was like, 'You know, I want to help people. I can help children.' Because first of all, I love children and children usually love me because I am a child," Cordelia joked.

Few early childhood degree options

South Dakota does not require child care providers to hold higher education credentials for licensing purposes. But research demonstrates a relationship between a child's earliest years and their future learning outcomes, so many providers and parents want to see child care staff with some level of specialized education.

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Some child care and preschool providers have begun requiring a one-year Child Development Associate as a minimum credential to lead a classroom, though there are more intensive options.

South Dakota State University in Brookings offers the only four-year degree specialization in early childhood education in the state. Northern State University in Aberdeen began offering a two-year associate degree in early childhood education last year, along with scholarships sponsored by the state Department of Social Services.

Ultimately, Cordelia decided on an early childhood specialist associate degree from Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls.

"I wanted to stay here because I wanted to help here," she explained.

Cordelia Rieck holds a baby on a couch
Cordelia Rieck decided on a program at Southeast Technical College so she could continue working with the kids at her parents' day care in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer / SDPB)

Cordelia acknowledges that none of her high school classmates are considering a career in child care.

"They go, 'I'm not having kids, so why does that pertain to me?'" she said. "It's really irritating sometimes because sometimes they're really arrogant about it."

Recent coverage of low wages for child care providers likely doesn't help.

In 2021, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said child care workers earn in the bottom 2% of occupations in the nation. That has contributed to staff burnout, which perpetuates the lack of child care providers. A 2022 report from South Dakota's Department of Social Services put the turnover rate of direct care staff at 88 percent. However, that same report shows the lowest turnover rate among group family day care providers, at 60 percent. It's unclear the turnover rate for registered family day cares like the Riecks'.

Karen Rieck believes her daughter has seen both the challenges and the benefits of running a family day care.

Karen Rieck and some of the children at her day care follow a yoga video to wind down
Karen Rieck and some of the children at her day care follow a yoga video to wind down before parents arrive for pickup. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer / SDPB)

"Having Justin and I both home all the time, she actually got to have us here," she explained. "She had that friend group here that she grew up with. ... I think she also sees on those days when it's 30-below and we're standing here with our hot cup of coffee and people are coming to us, and we didn't have to go out in that. There's perks to that."

Following in her mother's footsteps

As excited as Karen is to have Cordelia follow in her footsteps, she's also excited for her to blaze her own trail.

"To go from being someone who never thought I would have kids, to Cordelia ... we thought we were losing her at 12 weeks," Karen said through tears. "I've seen her grow up and just become an amazing person, and even when she turned 18, that was so hard for me. She doesn't need her mommy anymore! Part of that moving into the child care world, she's still gonna need me, but I want her to do her own thing and create who she is."

In the meantime, Cordelia looks forward to high school graduation and the next steps – even if few of her peers are working toward the same goal.

"The average teenager does not care at all. It's kind of sad because they don't have any of the childlike experiences after their childhood. I get to experience them every single day," she said.

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How to watch 'South Dakota Focus' on SDPB

The next episode of "South Dakota Focus" airs on Thursday, May 23, at 8 p.m. Central time / 7 p.m. Mountain time. It can be viewed on SDPB-TV 1, Facebook, YouTube and SD.net.

The episode includes:

  • A Build Dakota scholarship winner graduating from the surgical tech program
  • A youth center in Fort Thompson providing job and mentorship opportunities
  • Stories from South Dakota high schoolers on what's next after graduation