UAFS receives grant to open daycare center for students and teachers

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will have on-campus daycare for the children of students and prospective staff and faculty beginning in fall 2023 through a partnership with the Department of Human Services from Arkansas.

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 to the campus community. Approval of the partnership, which will raise more than $1 million to help the campus build and staff an early childhood education center, was announced Tuesday, September 6.

“The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education has received a number of grants over the past year, and we were able to secure one for $1.087 million to renovate (the building Echols on the UAFS campus) into a daycare 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 between multiple College of Health, Education, and Humanities programs.”

UAFS employs and educates hundreds of essential workers who daily face obstacles when scheduling childcare during a critical shortage of safe, reliable and affordable facilities in the region, according to a press release from the university.

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

The $1.1 million project, officially funded in full on Sept. 1, will see the university renovate the Echols Building to transform the former elementary school-turned-campus lab into a daycare center. Located on the southeast corner of the UAFS campus, with access to parking, age-appropriate play spaces, and interior hallways and exterior doors, the location is a perfect fit for the cutting-edge renovation , Henehan said.

Three classrooms will be renovated and equipped for the best care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. A large playground will be fenced off and transformed into an outdoor learning environment, the press release said. The university also received operating funds for the centre’s first year, which will allow the center to follow the process of the Better Beginnings initiative.

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

“We know that many parents struggle to find affordable, quality child care,” said Dr. Monica Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education. “The inability to find accessible child care creates such a significant barrier for some students that it could very well put an end to their educational journey. UAFS provides a myriad of resources to help all students succeed, and the opening of the Little Lions Child Development Center is another way to support those attending the university, as well as those who work there.

Student surveys in 2016 and 2019 showed the need for reliable and affordable childcare, with most respondents saying childcare has greatly affected their pursuit of education. When asked how much having on-campus childcare would impact campus engagement, 26% said it would have a big impact on their engagement, according to polls.

The center is expected to open in August 2023. It will accommodate eight infants, 14 toddlers and 20 preschoolers, Henehan said. There will be two caregivers/instructors for each age group. Given that some slots could be staggered depending on whether parents needing child care are on campus two, three or five days a week, more than 42 children could potentially 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 that childcare at the center is affordable for everyone. Prices have not yet been set.

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

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

“I say, believe it or not, because after the pandemic many people gave up on both education and health care. … The fact that students are embarking on early childhood education in droves speaks volumes about their desire to ensure that a child’s foundational knowledge is rooted in research and practice. So I think having a learning lab on our campus is fabulous for our students,” Riley said.

In the event that the daycare does not fill all of its classes with the children of UAFS students and employees, slots will be opened up to the wider Fort Smith community.

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