When Bret Klaehn and his wife began considering child care options, they realized they’d lucked out. All he had to do was bring his infant along on his commute from their home in Chatfield to the Lanesboro Public Schools building, where he worked as a third-grade teacher.
The district supports an on-site child care center that serves teachers and the community alike. It’s been providing the service since 1988, when it reportedly became the first public school district in the state to do so.
Today, Klaehn has three boys — ages 1, 5 and 6 — who are all enrolled in the child care center for full-day and before/after-school care. “Basically, they’ve gone to the school since they were 12 weeks old,” he said.
Chris Knutson, an English and social studies teacher for grades 7-12, also considers the child care center a significant job perk. She drops her grandson off at the center every day, and occasionally swings by on her lunch break to visit him. Beyond the convenience and grandma fixes, she says it gives her son and daughter-in-law peace of mind. “They like the fact that grandma’s just across the hallway,” she said.
Responding to demand in the community, the district recently supported an expansion project that grew the center’s capacity. The infant room, for instance, went from 11 to 20 spots; and more families are already on a wait list. “Without child care, rural Minnesota can be a difficult place to choose to live for young families, so it’s pretty crucial for us,” said Superintendent Matt Schultz. “On the whole, it’s the smartest move Lanesboro has ever made.”
‘A strong investment’
The Lanesboro child care center opened during the 1987-1988 school year as a much smaller experiment, serving “maybe a dozen kids,” said Heidi Brown, the center’s director.
The facility predates Brown and Schultz. But Schultz says his predecessor and the school board at the time had recognized it was a service “that small-town Minnesota was going to require, in order to stay viable.”
Technically, it’s run through the affiliate Community Education program. But the center itself is located within the public school building and is supported through the district’s general education fund dollars.
“We look at it as a pretty strong investment, not just in our district but in the future of our children,” Schultz said. “And it’s helped keep the cost to parents down, by supporting it with district money.”
Parents pay an hourly rate of $3.50 an hour for infants and $3.25 an hour for all other ages, which translates to $140 per week for a full-time infant. According to Child Care Aware of Minnesota, outstate child care centers typically charge $207 a week for infants, which means the rates — combined with the fact that families aren’t asked to pay a holding fee or required to stay enrolled over the summer months in order to keep their spot for the following school year — make it a more affordable options for many families.
But affordability isn’t the only driving factor behind the center’s recent expansion. In Lanesboro and surrounding communities, many of the home-care providers that families relied on are leaving the profession, Brown says. “In those instances, there’s a desperation even … because the need becomes very sudden,” she said.
This past summer, the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, drew attention to “child care deserts” across the nation. According to its report, 26 percent of Minnesotans live in areas where children under the age of 5 have no access to child care or where there are as many as three — or more — children per available spot.
When Brown began working at the center in 2015, she says they only had space for 15 school-aged kids. Today, they can accommodate 51 preschoolers, who stay at the child care center when they’re not participating in their preschool program that’s located in the same building.
The expansion involved adding new square footage to the building, as well as converting some existing spaces like the teachers’ lounge into age-appropriate rooms for the child care center.
An advantageous setting
Cheryl Brekke, the lead preschool teacher, has been with the center for 20 years. She’s one of 11 employees of the center who are teacher qualified. They are supported by five additional staff who work as aides. She used to work as an at-home child care provider, when her own kids were school-aged. Since working at the center, she says she’s seen the demand increase, especially in the past year or so.
Based on her insights, there are some not-as-obvious benefits to this arrangement as well. Over the years, she says she’s welcomed a number of female teachers into the room — sometimes up to four or five at a time — so they could nurse their infants during the workday.
And she points out that the child care center staff, herself included, benefit from having access to school resources that are located in the same building. That includes support staff who specialize in expertise including early childhood special education services, speech pathology and school psychology. “We are so lucky [to] have all the support from the staff,” she said. “If we have a question or issue with a child, we can talk to them about those things.”
Not only is it an alignment of resources, but it’s also an alignment of early childhood education opportunities for children who enroll and then transition to the district-run preschool and kindergarten programs. “This is truly a level of early childhood education,” Brown said. “Having us in the school really does align our school readiness; and those relationships can be built sooner.”
Jennifer Rogers, the district’s sole kindergarten teacher, says those who enroll in the on-site child care program typically experience a smoother transition into her classroom. She says they’re most likely to come equipped with the skills and experiences needed to do things like “function in a group” and “have a sense of what it looks like when we walk down the hall, when we are in an assembly.”
She also makes a point of stopping down to visit the child care kids every now and then, so they’re familiar with her before they even enter her classroom.
Looking to better align the early learning curriculum, she and her colleagues at the center are currently preparing to implement a new social-emotional learning curriculum that they purchased through grant funds from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.
“We chose that strand over math or reading because there’s a lot of research that says if that is in place, then it makes academic learning much more possible,” she said, noting the social-emotional learning initiative will reach the full spectrum of their youngest learners: infants through kindergarteners.