UAFS receives grant to open daycare for students, faculty

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,225 views 

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will have an on-campus daycare for children of students and possibly staff and faculty starting in fall 2023, thanks to a partnership with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

In the spring of 2021, UAFS proposed a partnership with the Arkansas Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education to provide child care services for the campus community. Partnership approval, which will bring in more than $1 million to help the campus build and staff an early childhood education center, was announced Tuesday (Sept. 6).

“The Division of Childcare and Early Childhood Education has had a number of grants out in the past year, and we were able to secure one for $1.087 million to renovate (the Echols Building on the UAFS campus) into a childcare center,” said Dr. Shelli Henehan, professor, assessment coordinator and director of Early Childhood Education at UAFS. “I truly believe this center will be transformative, as it will include collaborations among multiple programs in the College of Health, Education and Human Sciences.”

UAFS employs and educates hundreds of essential workers who face barriers daily when planning for child care during a critical shortage of safe, reliable, and affordable facilities in the region, a news release from the university said.

“The UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will serve 42 children from the ages of birth to three,” Henehan said. “We are so grateful for this funding from the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education and the ability to provide the highest quality of care for our youngest learners.”

The $1.1 million project, officially funded in full on Sept. 1, will enable the university to renovate the Echols Building to transform the former elementary school turned campus laboratory into a childcare facility. Located on the southeast corner of the UAFS campus, with access to parking, age-appropriate play spaces, and both interior hallway and exterior doors, the location is a perfect fit for the forward-thinking renovation, Henehan said.

Three classrooms will be remodeled and outfitted for the best care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. A large playground will be fenced and turned into an outdoor learning environment, the news release said. The university also received operations funding for the center’s first year, which will enable the center to go through the Better Beginnings Initiative process.

Dr. Shelli Henehan, professor, assessment coordinator and director of Early Childhood Education at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (photo courtesy of UAFS)

As a regional public university, UAFS employs and educates primarily residents of Sebastian and Crawford counties. In 2020, more than 12% of enrolled students were both PELL eligible, demonstrating a high financial need, and identified themselves as having dependent children. In a survey of all UAFS students conducted in 2019, an overwhelming majority, 90.78% of students, responded that they would gladly support a childcare center.

“We know that many parents struggle with finding affordable, quality childcare,” said Dr. Monica Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education. “The inability to find accessible childcare creates such a significant barrier for some students that it could very well end their educational journey. UAFS provides a myriad of resources to help all students be successful, and opening the Little Lions Child Development Center is yet another way we can support those who are attending the university, as well as those who are employed here.”

Surveys in 2016 and 2019 of students showed the need for reliable, affordable childcare, with most respondents stating that child care greatly affected their pursuit of a degree. When asked how greatly having child care on campus would impact involvement on campus, 26% said it would greatly impact their involvement, the surveys showed.

The center is expected to open in August 2023. It will have the capability for eight infants, 14 toddlers and 20 preschoolers, Henehan said. There will be two caregivers/instructors for each age group. Because some slots could be staggered on whether parents in need of childcare are on campus two, three or five days a week, more than 42 children could possibly be served. The center will be open five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Henehan said the university is working on ways to perhaps offer a voucher program for students, so the childcare at the center would be affordable for all. Rates have not yet been set.

Along with the renovation, the grant will fund a director, caregivers and instructors for the first year, said Dr. Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor. Riley said the daycare means two important things to the university: It shows UAFS is investing in creating a learning laboratory for students in the early childhood education program, and it creates a safe, convenient place for the children of students and potentially faculty and staff depending on the number of slots available.

Riley said early childhood education is one of the university’s fastest growing programs.

“I say believe it or not because post-pandemic, many people have shied away from both education and healthcare. … For students to be going in droves into early childhood education tells me a lot about their desire to make certain the foundational knowledge of a child is rooted in research and practice. So I think having a learning laboratory on our campus is fabulous for our students,” Riley said.

In the event the childcare center does not fill all of its classes with UAFS students’ and employees’ children, slots will be open to the broader Fort Smith community.