Farhia Egal ventured into the business of child care tentatively.

In the basement of her Richfield home, she cycled through a meager arsenal of toys with her two children and another Somali-American family's kids. The prospect of navigating Minnesota's day-care licensing process intimidated her.

But several years ago, Egal set out to do more — an effort that yielded a two-year college degree, a complete makeover of her basement and her first non-Somali-American clients.

A major push is underway to boost quality at Somali-American day cares and child-care centers, which have mushroomed across the metro area and the state. Its focus: pack more learning into the day and prepare youngsters for kindergarten. Powered by funding from the state and higher expectations of Somali-American parents, these efforts place child-care providers like Egal on the front lines of combating education gaps affecting East African students.

"Providers are starting to understand what an important role they play in the community," said Barb Yates, president of the nonprofit Think Small.

Recent high-profile state investigations into almost a dozen Somali-American providers — and the resulting criminal charges of swindling the public Child Care Assistance Program — have roiled that community of caregivers.

Some worry that the bad players threaten to overshadow positive strides made during the past few years. Somali-American providers take part in Minnesota's child-care quality ratings system at higher rates than other businesses, and some even have earned national accreditation.

The push to shore up quality is needed, says Mohamud Noor, head of the nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community.

He notes that the school readiness gap African students face in the Minneapolis Public Schools widened slightly in recent years: The district deemed 65 percent of those students prepared for kindergarten during the last school year, compared with 90 percent of white peers.

"I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done by the state and the day cares to improve quality," said Noor.

Growing need

When Farhia Aden started searching for day care last year, she had a clear wish list. She was looking for a clean, homelike place where her two boys would get a lot of attention. Ideally, the caretakers would serve the Somali rice dishes the boys enjoy at home, and they would be allies in Aden's effort to keep up her children's Somali language, even as the youngsters insist on speaking English.

But perhaps most important, she says, she wanted a day care that would help prep the boys for kindergarten: "I wanted a place where they would learn the alphabet and the numbers."

Over the past decade, the ranks of Somali-American child-care providers have swelled statewide. As the children of recent immigrants have become Minnesota's fastest-growing group of kids under 5, these providers have undergone a natural evolution: Many like Egal started out as "family, friend and neighbor" home day cares, able to serve relatives and one unrelated family member without a license. Then came licensed in-home day cares. Somali-Americans also have launched child-care centers serving dozens of children, including a growing number who are not Somali-American.

Among the state's more than 10,000 licensed providers, 65 child-care centers and 58 in-home family day cares report that the owner or key staff members speak Somali, but that's likely an undercount.

Somali-American-run day cares and centers remain the child-care option of choice for Somali-American parents, who are often reluctant to entrust their kids to strangers outside their culture. And that can be a good thing, research suggests: Children do better academically and learn to read English faster when they have a firm grasp of the language spoken at home and caretakers who understand their culture.

Singling out fraud

Meanwhile, investigations by a new state unit devoted to weeding out fraud in the taxpayer-funded Child Care Assistance Program have trained a harsh spotlight on Somali providers. Since its launch in spring 2014, the unit has completed 10 investigations of providers — all of them East African — suspected of inflating the number of eligible children they serve or the hours of service. At four centers, providers faced criminal charges, including a Twin Cities couple accused of stealing more than $4 million; two have pleaded guilty.

"When programs take the money but don't provide the services, kids miss out on quality child care," said Jerry Kerber, inspector general of the state Department of Human Services, who notes that 5,300 families are on the waiting list for subsidized child care.

Often, Kerber says, fraud charges came part and parcel with extensive safety and other licensing violations. At Salama Child Care Center in Minneapolis, the state found more than 20 licensing violations, such as inadequate staff-to-child ratios, hazards such as unshielded electrical outlets and a lack of basic learning supplies.

Some community leaders have criticized the state for zeroing in on Somali-American providers. Kerber says the new unit's investigators are simply following up on tips from parents, former employees and licensing staff.

A new approach

On the walls of Egal's Richfield day care are daily lesson plans and posters with the periodic table of elements, short and long vowels, frequently misspelled words like "broccoli" and "ketchup," and the names of traditional Somali artifacts. There's a quiet reading area set off by shelves packed with books and a desk for doing homework.

"It looks just like a school," said Aden, whose two sons now attend Egal's day care.

In the past few years, Egal has learned a lot and, by all accounts, the children under her care are learning more as a result. In 2011, Somali-speaking Think Small employees translated the state license application for Egal and guided her as she selected required equipment and hosted licensing staff.

Then Egal decided to volunteer for Minnesota's Parent Aware child-care rating system and became a regular at Think Small trainings offered in Somali and English, which covered everything from curricula to obesity prevention. Meanwhile, Egal got an associate degree in child development from St. Paul College.

After her program earned the maximum four stars from Parent Aware, Egal fielded the first calls from interested non-Somali-American families.

Egal's experience is part of a broader push by Think Small in recent years to encourage Somali-American and other new-immigrant providers to get licensed and join Parent Aware, which qualifies a provider's families for Minnesota's early-learning scholarships. Think Small now employs three Somali-American trainers, five Somali-American providers who serve as mentors to colleagues and three Somali-American Parent Aware coaches.

According to Child Care Aware of Minnesota, about 16 percent of licensed providers statewide participate in Parent Aware; of those who reported speaking Somali, more than half got rated.

Think Small staff members say some providers from rural areas of Somalia are working to overcome their limited English and lack of formal education. They tell of a St. Paul provider who in short order got her GED, became licensed, finished her basement to set up an indoor activity space she calls her "muscles area" and compiled a rich library of children's books.

Meanwhile, Bloomington Public Health reached out to providers in the growing Somali-American communities of Bloomington, Edina and Richfield with trainings on healthy meals and physical activity last year.

The Center for Inclusive Child Care in St. Paul prepared 15 Somali-Americans to train providers on recognizing signs of developmental delays. The Confederation of Somali Community is gearing up to launch a preschool program that will double as a training ground for Somali-American providers.

Taxpayer investment has fueled many of these efforts. This year, Think Small received more than $84,000 from the state for bilingual trainers including Somali-Americans; meanwhile, a $255,000 state grant will support a network of Somali-American, Hmong and Latino providers and interpreter services in seven languages.

Egal now mentors two Hmong providers going through the licensing process.

"I tell them the parents always like seeing the children doing different learning activities," she said. "And doing the two cultures."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781