Early learning center will be piloted at Greencastle-Antrim site
A prototype childcare initiative with educational and economic benefits is being propelled from the discussion stage to plans for a late summer opening thanks to a $300,000 IMPACT grant awarded in December by Franklin County commissioners.
The money is being funneled through the Greencastle-Antrim Education Foundation for the development of the Greencastle-Antrim Early Care and Learning Center in a portion of the John L. Grove Medical Center on Eastern Avenue.
It is part of more than $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 recovery funds allocated to 127 nonprofit, municipal and municipal authority projects across the county. The Greencastle-Antrim Education Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to impacting and enhancing the educational experience of Greencastle-Antrim students.
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The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for quality affordable childcare and early learning, according to Dr. Lura Hanks, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District, who has issued a call to action through a public-private partnership.
For the pilot program, donations are sought toward the total renovation cost of $500,000 as well as expanding the Pre-K Counts program for age 3 through kindergarten and increasing childcare availability.
“It really does take partnerships,” said Dr. Annette Searfoss, president and CEO of First Start Partnerships for Children and Families. She noted “partnerships” is the middle name of her organization, which provides early learning opportunities through Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs in Franklin County.
Early learning and childcare also are a priority for Mike Ross, president of Franklin County Area Development Corp., another partner in the creation of the G-A facility, which has been discussed for more than a year.
“We are fortunate to have Dr. Hanks and Dr. Searfoss leading our effort as both are early learning specialists who have exemplary leadership skills and are totally committed to the importance of expanding early learning opportunities,” Ross said. “Given the relationship of high-quality early learning and childcare to workforce development, the FCADC will continue to make it an advocacy priority.”
“We hope this model is quickly able to be expanded,” Hanks said, saying there is a “crying need” for childcare and early childhood education in her district and throughout the area. First Start Partnerships currently serves 813 children across Franklin County through Pre-K Counts and Head Start, but thousands more are eligible.
“Childcare is a broken system, that’s why locally we’re trying to create solutions to those problems,” according to Searfoss, who said the goal is to have centers throughout area.
“We care about the children in our community from the time they arrive until they become viable, productive citizens,” Hanks said.
What’s planned at the John L. Grove Medical Center
There currently are 36 children in First Start Partnerships’ two Pre-K Counts classrooms at Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greencastle.
The proposed site at John L. Grove Medical Center would more than double that to 80 children in four classrooms, each with access to its own child-friendly bathroom. There also will be offices for community resources and intervention such as occupational or physical therapy, a large play area, a common reception area and a secure entrance.
There is currently Pennsylvania Department of Education funding for the 36 children in the Greencastle-Antrim program. Searfoss said they plan to request more state money, but sponsoring Pre-K Counts slots also is an option for business donations. For example, a $100,000 donation would cover the five hours of Pre-K Counts for 10 children for one year.
The money pays for teachers certified for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, so the program is “extremely high quality getting kids ready for kindergarten,” Searfoss said. Children learn in a fun environment for five hours a day and the classroom ratio is one teacher for no more than 10 students.
Part of the call to action is money to add “wrap-around childcare” to those five hours so it makes sense for working families.
“We can open in August as Pre-K Counts five hours a day, but would love to have subsidized hours added,” Hanks said.
Businesses have options for earmarking their donations, including funding spots for employees’ children as an employment incentive. Parents also may be able to pay for extended care, Searfoss said.
Money also is needed for summer programming, which would be a camp-type environment, and a playground.
“We’re ready to go … Eagle Construction is ready to go,” Searfoss said. The goal is to have the center open for the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.
The site for the Greencastle-Antrim Early Care and Learning Center is 10,000 square feet at the south end of the John L. Grove Medical Center, 50 Eastern Ave. The space was previously occupied by Summit Health’s Antrim Family and Walk-In Care, which are now WellSpan Family Medicine and WellSpan Urgent Care and located in the medical building on Antrim Commons Drive.
Other medical offices will remain in the rest of the John L. Grove Medical Center. The building is owned by the Greencastle-Antrim Foundation, formed in the 1960s to bring medical professionals to the community, according to President Jeff Shank.
The Greencastle-Antrim School Board showed its support for early education by committing to paying the $100,000-a-year lease at the medical center, but Hanks said it would be great if that were covered by donations, too.
The G-A school campus and Eastern Avenue, located just west of Interstate 81’s Exit 5, appear to be in different parts of town. However, Eastern Avenue ends at the rear of Tayamentasachta, the school district’s environmental center.
Why is early childhood education important?
“The early childhood experience is the greatest mental and emotional foundation which directly correlates to academic success,” Hanks said.
“We focus in the school district on where kids are going, but we also need to know where they’re coming from,” Hanks said. She mentioned a “cradle to career” path she hopes will later be extended to infants and toddlers and noted, “The brain grows at its greatest rate between zero and 5.”
She and Searfoss cited numerous school readiness advantages seen in children who attend pre-kindergarten programs, including early literacy and math skills, language development, fine motor skills and social interaction such as getting along with others.
“We are able to teach all of these in a play-based environment,” Searfoss said, explaining the skills can be as simple as knowing how to use scissors.
Early learning also means early identification of children who made need intervention to help with speech, language development and social and emotional skills.
Educators “can see a difference when kids come to kindergarten after having certified teachers,” Searfoss added.
“I cannot overstate the importance of early learning in building our future workforce, which will be increasingly knowledge-technically based,” Ross said. “For children to be educationally competitive, i.e. to enter kindergarten on par with their peers, they need an early learning/preschool foundation. Countless studies have validated the long-term importance of early learning in developing a better educated and more competitive workforce. There are no more important investments that can be made at the local, state, and federal levels than in early earning.”
“We’re starting small,” said Hanks before she and Searfoss talked about the big opportunities if the pilot program spreads throughout the county.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Pre-K Counts program is for families with incomes up to 300% at the poverty level. That makes more than 70% of Franklin County families eligible. For example, 300% of the poverty level for a family of four was $83,250 in 2022. New figures for 2023 are due out later this month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
How does childcare connect to the economy?
The IMPACT grants go back to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and Hanks pointed out its impact on the workforce, especially women.
“In COVID, who stayed home?” she asked. “To get women back in the workforce, they need to know they have safe, quality care for their kids.”
Childcare also needs to make financial sense when its costs are compared to earnings, said Hanks, adding a number of grandparents also left the job force early to take care of grandchildren.
The county’s labor participation rate — the percentage of people working or actively looking for work —is 61%. That’s down from 68% pre-COVID and is contributing to the labor shortage, according to Ross.
“The decline is due primarily to the number of females who exited the workforce during COVID to care for their children and/or parents and who have not returned because of the lack of high-quality childcare options,” Ross said. “Several childcare centers were forced to close during COVID and have not reopened due to regulatory compliance issues related to operations and staffing shortages.
“Given the projected job growth over the next 12 to 36 months in the Tristate laborshed, childcare will become increasingly important and needs to be a priority of every employer as they compete to attract and retain employees,” Ross said.
That message has been conveyed since discussion of a childcare and early learning center and getting people back to work started with area businesses in November 2021, Hanks said. In December 2021, the Greencastle-Antrim School Board added early childhood education to its list of committees.
In December 2022, FCADC sponsored a luncheon to provide an update to county commissioners and business leaders about data concerning childcare needs, plans for the center and call-to-action sponsorship opportunities.
“We were holding our breath waiting for the grant. Now we’re reaching out for commitments,” said Hanks. NorthPoint Development, which is building warehouses off Exit 3 at Interstate 81, was the first to step forward at $25,000.
Donations can be made online at https://forms.gle/7u3WiFHt8bsMmVJP7.
Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at email@example.com