A state-licensed day care program has opened at Kalispell Public Schools as part of a cooperative program aimed at serving the children of district employees with a second slated to launch in December.
Administrators such as Kalispell Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Matt Jensen hope the added benefit will help with employee retention considering the demand for affordable quality child care in the valley.
The cooperative is made up of district staff who are parents of children attending the day care programs, including Kyla Niva, who said Jensen reached out to employees last summer to gauge interest in launching the effort.
“Two things come up in interviewing new staff,” Niva said. “People need housing; people need child care.”
In August, the cooperative, which is primarily responsible for hiring the day care directors, selected Ashley Levesque as director of The Hive at Peterson Elementary School and Alicia Simmons as director of Little Explorers Day School, which is expected to open at Edgerton Elementary School next month.
“These are highly qualified and high-quality individuals,” Niva said.
The day care programs operate as independent businesses. The school district’s involvement is limited to providing facilities and maintenance in addition to fingerprinting and conducting background checks on providers.
Depending on the number of openings, the programs may also serve the grandchildren of employees and children of substitute teachers and school volunteers, according to a memorandum of understanding between the school district and staff. The MOU is set to be reviewed annually in August.
Children of community members may also be served at the discretion of the day care directors to fill openings.
Kalispell Public Schools is joining other area school systems in offering space for day care. Columbia Falls School District has housed an independently operated, licensed day care since 2004 or ’05, according to Superintendent Dave Wick. At Columbia Falls, the day care program is housed in the administrative building. Like Kalispell, staff members get priority. Bigfork School District also has a similar arrangement.
“… It is a positive for recruiting and retention of staff,” Wick wrote in an email to the Daily Inter Lake. “If we have extra spots, members of the community can apply. The benefit for staff is convenience, as well as matching the school schedule.”
THE HIVE, which opened at Peterson in October, was buzzing Nov. 9 with busy children ranging in age from 20 months to 5 years old. The day care room is located in a part of the school where it has its own entrance, bathrooms and outdoor play area.
Levesque and provider Korri Volen were following right along with the busy bees who stood or sat at a long table, creating construction paper snowmen with an abundance of glue. The snowmen varied in size with each snowball containing a letter of a child’s name. One child opted to play with a toy while the youngest of the bunch whirled about the classroom like a “little tornado,” Levesque said smiling.
Both The Hive and Little Explorers Day School boast a capacity of 15 children. Levesque is keeping enrollment to eight children for the remainder of the school year.
She said parents with elementary-aged children already attending Peterson also are interested in having their younger children come to the same school for day care. The Hive serves children as young as 18 months.
“There’s a little wiggle room on the age,” she said. “It’s more milestone [based]. They need to be able to feed themselves and they need to be completely walking.”
Simmons said the Little Explorers Day School plans to serve up to two infants, who are at least six months old, all the way up to 5-year-olds.
Both Levesque and Simmons learned about the opportunity to operate out of the elementary schools from a social media post by Niva. At the time, Levesque was looking to open her own in-home day care after working in child care with Volen for several years. Simmons had been operating a part-time preschool for the past two years.
“I managed a drop-in [day care] for years with Korri [Volen],” Levesque said.
She and Volen then began working at the Bird’s Nest in Kalispell where Levesque said she learned a lot from owner Corinne Kuntz about what it took to open and operate a state-licensed day care.
“It’s a big process to get licensed when you don’t have the [previous] knowledge about opening a daycare. There are lots of laws and regulations. The amount of paperwork you do is crazy,” she said, down to measuring an area to ensure space requirements are met per child depending on age.
Yet, it’s worth it for the peace of mind she hopes it gives families.
“Because when it comes to inspections they make sure everything is up to code,” she said.
Levesque, a mother of four, got into the child care business when it came time to place her daughter in day care.
“I was terrified and so I got a job at a daycare so I could bring her with me and she’s almost 10 so I stuck to it,” Levesque said.
Simmons has 15 years of experience in early childhood education and obtained a bachelor’s degree in child development
Some of the perks of working out of the schools would be increased visibility and no rent or utility costs. In turn, both The Hive and Little Explorers Day School offer discounted rates/registration fees to staff.
BACK AT The Hive, Volen brought out a baggie of googly eyes of different colors and sizes.
“Do you want a big googly green eye or a little tiny one…?” she asked one of the children, holding the bag open and then pouring a small pile on the table.
A few of the eyes fell to the ground, which another child picked up, naming the colors out loud — blue, green and a tough one, pink.
Levesque said the children are all at different stages of learning and development, which makes the job a lot of fun.
“We have kids that are learning how to spell words,” Levesque said. “We have kids learning to share and use their words, so each kid is at a different spot. Some of them working on letters and some working on gross motor skills.”
While the children have the freedom to play, socialize, explore and imagine, there are boundaries, which is a learning process. When two children start chasing each other around the room playing superheroes with imaginary laser arms and eyes, dodging furniture and people, Levesque kneeled on the floor and gently asked them if they remembered “how we play inside and how we play outside after lunch.”
With an “OK,” the children moved over to a sensory table to play, plunging their hands into plastic tubs filled with dry beans and other objects. Grabbing handfuls of beans, the children drop them into funnels and scatter them around like rain. When two children want to play with the same item, Levesque and Volen talk to them about waiting for their turn and sharing.
Soon, it’s lunchtime. While Volen goes to pick up the children’s meals, Levesque has the children pick out books they’d like to hear and gather at the table.
Housing the child care programs in schools may also offer other opportunities down the road. Levesque mentioned being approached by a high school instructor who teaches child development classes.
“If students wanted to take turns being in charge or observing children I’d totally be down with that,” Levesque said.
Why don’t more people become child care providers?
“I think it also comes down to if you work with children, you’re not in it for the money,” Levesque said watching the children gleefully playing.
She said it’s a challenge to balance the costs of operating a quality program and charging rates that are affordable yet don’t result in underpaying employees.
Addressing the child care shortage is currently a task the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has undertaken through a Child Care Action Plan.
“It’s tough,” Levesque said.
For more information about the day care programs, email Levesque [email protected], or Simmons at [email protected]
Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at [email protected]