Article by Denise DeTommaso
Photography by Anthony Fergola
Originally published in Lawrence City Lifestyle In a momentous leap toward creating a nurturing space for the youngest members of the Lawrence community, The Community Children’s Center has begun the final steps in renovation of its Early Childhood Community Center building at 346 Maine Street. In 2024, the seven new classrooms will provide parents with much-needed daytime, overnight and weekend childcare for infants and toddlers.
Executive Director Kim Polson said the new center seeks to fill gaps in the community. “Our goal overall as an organization is to identify system gaps in early childhood and then identify programs to fill those gaps. And the childcare facility portion of our project is doing that in two ways.”
The gaps in care the new center addresses are operating hours and age group served. Polson notes parents who work in manufacturing, the service industry, hospitals, and other essential roles such as law enforcement need daycare in the evening, overnight and weekend hours. As of now, only one licensed facility in Douglas County provides overnight hours, and that is a barrier for parents and the community at large.
“We know that that is a significant need in order for families, parents, caregivers to be able to continue to work,” Polson says. “That is a significant need in our community that we feel we can develop some strategies to fill.”
The new center is focused on infants and toddlers, specifically those from birth to 24 months, because that age group represents the greatest need in the community.
Childcare spots are less common because care for that age group is the most expensive for providers. Polson points out for every infant or toddler spot in the community, there are up to 10 children who could fill that place.
In Douglas County, the average full-time cost to send an infant between birth and 12 months to a childcare center is $1,136 per month, according to point-in-time data for Douglas County from Childcare Aware of Kansas. For children 12 to 17 months, that cost decreases only slightly, to $1,021 per month. For children 18 to 23 months, the cost is $1,001 per month.
To ensure the facility is accessible to different sectors of the population, fees will be charged on a sliding scale, with lower-income families paying less. One third of each classroom will be reserved for families who receive childcare subsidies from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, one third for families whose employers provide some kind of childcare subsidy for their employees, and one third for the community at large.
Lead teachers at the center will have gone through an education program, have a bachelor’s degree, and be certified. The plan is to pay those teachers a salary similar to what is offered by the local school district. Teacher aides will be paid a minimum of $15 per hour. Polson says the pay reflects the fact that education at age two or three is of no less value than education at older ages.
“Really what we’re trying to do is make sure that early childhood professionals are compensated in a way that is similar in structure to local public schools, as well as acknowledging the fact that most brain development happens in the first five years of life,” she explains “And so the investment in that part of life is crucial and can have a significant impact on the quality of life for the long haul.”
All of these efforts are part of the larger, systemwide focus of the organization. As the “Lawrence Journal-World” previously reported, the center will provide other services for families and be involved in efforts to strengthen the community’s childcare system as a whole. That includes a support network for early childhood professionals and a family resource center for parents and guardians who need assistance navigating social services. Other resources available at the center will include an indoor playground space and a free community store for distributing early-childhood and maternity items.
Polson said the organization will be sharing information with other childcare providers to encourage more to accept subsidies from the Department for Children and Families. She also noted reserving a third of the spaces for families who receive support from their employer for childcare is part of a larger effort to encourage similar programs in the community.
“We need people to understand this is not an issue only for families with young children,” Polson says. “It’s an issue for our community, and for our economy and quality of life within our community.”
The Early Childhood Community Center is slated to open later this summer. To keep track of its progress and to learn more about the Community Children’s Center programs, go to CommunityChildrenKS.org.
...for every infant or toddler spot...there are up to 10 children who could fill that place.