YAKIMA — The Plath family had been a part of Yakima’s fruit industry through Washington Fruit for nearly a century when Cliff Plath, a fruit grower and philanthropist, saw another opportunity for growth.

The family’s orchards had begun to stretch east from Yakima into Benton and Grant counties, and with them, their employee base grew. But unlike what they had witnessed in Yakima, some of their workers’ families lacked local resources to support their children while they were working long agricultural hours.

“He would see these kids out in our orchards, or he would be at one of the farm men’s houses and he would see these little kids not in school,” said Janie Plath, his widow. “It just became a concern of his.”

As the grandson of A.C. Davis — the renowned Yakima school superintendent that the high school today is named after — Plath knew the importance of education to an individual’s future, as well as to their community.

In 2009, he turned to then-superintendent of Educational Service District 105, Jane Gutting, who told Plath that many young kids in Royal City, for example, were not entering kindergarten with foundational skills like an understanding of primary colors, numbers or letters. He was determined to change that.

Today, Plath is held up as a role model in Washington state for members of the business community investing in child care and early learning, as well as a stronger workforce down the road.

Before he died in early 2020, Plath established three state-of-the-art early learning centers in Yakima and Royal City, helping to provide rich early learning environments to more than 200 children from low-income or agricultural families.

In addition to funding the building sites and creating a blueprint for future models, he subsidized the cost of care for the children of his own workers and other agricultural workers for a handful of years, and lobbied state leaders and lawmakers to grow a stronger early learning system.

In the process, he became a believer in private-public partnerships.

Long hours, low resources

Finding reliable child care in Washington state is a struggle for most working parents. Prior to the pandemic, which rattled the already-fragile child care system, licensed child care programs statewide had the capacity to care for just 17% of child care-aged children, according to research from the Legislature-mandated Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force in late 2019.

The lack of supply and the high cost of care leave many parents struggling to find reliable child care.

In a 2019 survey of 400 Washington families with children under the age of six commissioned by the task force, 27% of parents reported quitting work, school or training due to child care issues. Another 29% declined a job or promotion because of child care, 27% reduced their commitments to part-time and 9% reported being fired or let go because of child care disruptions.

Issues with unstable child care like these contributed to an estimated $2.08 billion cost to Washington employers from turnover or missed work in 2019, according to the report. A total of $6.5 billion was lost to the state economy in direct costs and opportunity costs, it said.

As the research indicates, access to stable child care and a stable workforce go hand-in-hand.

In 2018, for example, the Association of Washington Business reported that 67% of employers experienced absenteeism among their employees because of child care issues.

In addition to child care stabilizing the existing workforce in the state, high quality care is linked to higher achievement in school among kids later in life, which translates to a better workforce for business down the road, experts say. In recent years, there’s been a push by the AWB for its members to contribute to the child care industry and, by the task force, for the Legislature to create incentives for businesses to do so.

In the meantime, Plath’s model proves that this investment by business leaders is possible, and that it works, said former state Rep. Ruth Kagi, who is seen as a leader in the child care field in the state.

“You were extremely fortunate to have a philanthropic grower, Cliff,” Kagi said of support from Plath to the Central Washington child care and early learning system. “He really helped me understand how we could work with private funders to greatly expand the availability of high quality facilities ... He’s really been a leader in the state.”

Royal start

When Plath turned to Gutting at ESD 105 — an agency that supports regional schools with educational services — in 2009, Gutting said he asked her to connect him with school districts.

His vision was to partner with schools to create resources for children without access to high quality early learning. In raising his own children and seeing their development in preschool classrooms, she said, he had become “impressed with the ways teachers could engage preschoolers in learning and playing with each other.”

“From those personal experiences, Cliff became a fan of early learning and believed all children should have the same opportunities his children had,” Gutting said.

Their work began in Royal City, where Janie Plath said he first conjured the vision for a “little red school house” catering to the kids he had seen in his family’s orchards.

Plath donated $75,000 to Royal School District to launch the preschool program, according to a report by Columbia Basin Herald at the time.

“I noticed an influx of young kids not getting properly prepared for kindergarten and wanted to do something about it,” Plath told the Columbia Basin Herald. “Education is important to me because it provides kids the opportunity to have great futures.”

The program allowed for two preschool classrooms to be run out of a local church basement, which Plath would continue to fund for the next 10 years, Gutting said. This included paying for teacher compensation, playground supplies and equipment.

“Several times each year, Cliff visited these classrooms as he went to Royal City to check on his crops,” she said. “It wasn’t unusual to find Cliff sitting in a corner reading books to groups of children, always with a warm smile on his face.”

Building a blueprint

During that time, Plath was attempting to buy Royal City land to house a more permanent learning center, but struggled to find willing sellers.

He turned to Yakima. Collaborating with ESD 105 early learning experts, Plath developed Blossoms Early Learning Center, which opened in 2016. He leaned on the ESD for guidance on building and licensing requirements, while it relied on him for the funding and vision, said Cynthia Juarez, the executive director of early learning and migrant education for ESD 105.

“We all learned a lot through that process, because that’s where that collaboration and that partnership really came into fruition,” she said.

Run by ESD 105 staff, the center has the capacity to serve 72 children. Many of these spots were initially filled by the children of agricultural workers from Washington Fruit and other local companies, and Plath helped pay for their children’s care. But the goal was for the program to eventually sustain itself. Today, it is fully funded by the state through ECEAP, a preschool program for low-income residents’ children.

“Once he invested in developing that plan, the blueprint and everything that goes with it, it was like, ‘Wow, this is worth a lot now,’” Juarez said. “It’s priceless, right? Because you can use this and put it in other places and just duplicate it.”

Replicating the vision

With the building blueprint in hand, Plath returned to Royal City. He bought property from Catholic Charities and replicated the building, completing it in late 2019 with minor tweaks from the original blueprint. Construction was funded by Plath, while the operational costs are funded through ECEAP.

The Royal City Blossoms location is now run by Inspire Development Centers, a state early learning organization, rather than the local school district. It currently serves 60 children of low-income families — and primarily those from agricultural households, since the industry makes up the vast majority of the local economy. In the coming year, directors hope to increase capacity to 80 or 100 children through additional ECEAP funding from the state.

Royal School District continues to run its own preschool program, said Superintendent Roger Trail.

Around the same time the Royal City Blossoms was completed, another iteration of the building was also completed in south Yakima. It is run by ESD 105 with federal preschool programming, rather than state funding.

While the children of agriculture workers are among attendees of the three early learning programs, they are now available to all who qualify.

“His dream world of a little red school house and wanting for his farms to have access to early learning — I think it just kind of evolved,” said Janie Plath. “You know, ‘Oh whoa, there’s a whole lot of people out there that need early learning. So why be exclusive?

“It’s a big, big need everywhere,” she added. “It’s fun to see those kids thrive and at least get them on a good start — a good rootstock, as Clifford would say.”

But even as the programs serve more than agricultural workers, both employees and employers in this industry benefit from them, said Margarita Cortez, a parent advocate at the Royal City Blossoms. Her job is to make community members aware of the early learning and child care resources at Blossoms. She said she has working relationships with local agriculture companies including Washington Fruit, Callahan Manufacturing, Dorsing Farms, Royal Dairy, Brown Boys Onions and Blue Sky Management.

“We can help with the child care, and then they’re able to have parents and have them work,” Cortez said of the local companies, adding that Inspire and Blossoms work with their hours.

That’s something agriculture workers and their employers in particular struggle with, since many begin the work day around 5:30 a.m. — long before most child care programs open.

Plath’s impact

While Plath died in April 2020 from esophageal cancer at age 64, the legacy of his three early learning sites lives on, as does the blueprint.

Janie Plath said Heritage University in Toppenish may soon use the learning center model to upgrade and expand its child care services for the children of students.

Early learning capacity isn’t all that’s grown from the developments.

Around the time that Plath began investing in an early learning program for Royal City kids, the district was seeing just 25% of its kindergarteners arrive with foundational skills in areas like cognition, language and math seen as measures for kindergarten readiness. That’s according to 2011 data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. While the measure has ebbed and flowed since then, it rose dramatically in 2019 to 56.3% — exceeding the state rate of kindergarten readiness, at 51.5%. OSPI data doesn’t indicate what instigated this change, but Gutting said that school staff in Royal City “kept data on progress of kindergarten students and found that ‘Cliff’s kids’ did significantly better in language skills, number sense and socialization skills from (kindergarten) through third grade compared to children who did not attend early learning.”

Royal School District superintendent Trail agreed.

“Anything that can be done to help prepare kids is a plus and a bonus,” Trail said. “When you compared data that we had to kids that didn’t have any kind of preschool, obviously they were a lot more advanced and ready for kindergarten.”

While the district continues with its own preschool program, he said access to early learning at the Blossoms location is a benefit to the community.

State data show that students with these foundational skills are more likely to meet standards on third-grade math and reading exams. Those are in turn indicators of whether students are likely to graduate from high school.

While parents are their children’s first teachers, access to high-quality child care programs can contribute to kindergarten readiness.

Leaders from the local Yakima and Royal City communities to the state level recognize Plath’s effort as an exemplary contribution to early learning in the state. It’s something others should emulate, they say.

“This is the first time we’ve ever established this kind of partnership,” said Rick Garza, the director of Inspire. “I think it’s something that could be replicated in other places.

“It’s been a really rewarding relationship that we’ve had with Cliff,” he added. “This is really a benefit to the kids (and) the community.”