Lebanon employers seek to meet workers’ child care needs

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-27-2024 5:00 PM

LEBANON — Two new child care options are in the works in the city, as Lebanon employers seek to address their workers’ needs. 

The Lebanon School District is proposing to create and staff an early child care room at the Hanover Street School, primarily for the children of district employees. The school district will hold a public forum on Tuesday to gather feedback from community members and to address any concerns about its proposal. 

Meanwhile, Dartmouth Health and the Carter Community Building Association, or CCBA, announced last week that the two organizations will collaborate to create a new child care center for employees who work at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, New London Hospital, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center and Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, according to a CCBA news release.

Housing and child care are the two biggest challenges facing the Upper Valley, Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said, and the lack of affordable child care for Upper Valley families is “clearly a crisis,” that keeps people out of the workforce, he added.

The announcements come as the City of Lebanon is in the process of trying to fund a roughly $22 million project to build a child care facility on city property near the Lebanon airport that would serve up to 200 infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The center would be staffed and managed by the Concord-based nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Central and Northern New Hampshire, according to the same operational model as its 10 other child care facilities in the state.

In 2023, the city received a $1.6 million federal grant for the project, “but we still have a long way to go,” Mulholland said.

The child care room at Hanover Street School also is expected to be a collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club. The school district reached out to the nonprofit, which provides a range of youth services, “because of the city’s relationship with that organization and their previous experience in the early childcare space,” Lebanon School Board Chairwoman Lilian Maughan said by email last Wednesday.

The Hanover Street program would serve 15 children, ages 2 through 4, according to a proposal Hanover Street School Principal Leah Wheelan provided to the board at its May 8 meeting. The children of district teachers and staff would have priority enrollment. Members of the Lebanon community would be eligible for any spots not claimed by district employees. It is not yet clear how eligibility would be determined for non-district employees.

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The child care room would be open year-round from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. except for snow days, Wheelan told the School Board.

“The goal is to retain teachers and meet the growing demand for child care services,” Lebanon Superintendent Amy Allen said by email last Wednesday.

Although a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, between the Lebanon School District and the Boys and Girls Club has not yet been finalized, the plan is for the child care room to be staffed and managed by the nonprofit, which will also assume any construction or renovation costs required for the facility.

The cost to parents would be set “at a market rate price,” by the Boys and Girls Club, which would also provide staffing, Wheelan said at the May 8 meeting.

Costs to the school district are expected to be minimal and include things such as after-hours utility usage and some possible custodial expenses.

The idea for the child care program “came from the Superintendent as a response to the closure of the CCBA preschool and the ever-increasing need for child care locally,” Maughan said.

The CCBA, a nonprofit recreation organization in downtown Lebanon, announced last December that it would close its preschool program in June. For 25 years, the program has provided preschool during the academic year for children, ages 2 through 5.

“For us, the main challenges were the lack of qualified early childhood educators,” CCBA Executive Director Kerry Artman said Friday. The preschool space also requires renovation following an October a water main break.

The new center at CCBA, in collaboration with Dartmouth Health, will open its doors in September and will accommodate more than 40 children, ranging in age from 18 months to 5 years.

Like city officials, Carolyn Isabelle, Dartmouth Health’s vice president for talent acquisition and career development, said housing and child care are the “top two barriers to workforce recruitment and retention in the region.”

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Upper Valley had an estimated shortfall of 2,000 child care spots, according to a project brief provided to the city by the Lebanon-based Early Care and Education Association, or ECEA, a nonprofit child care provider network.

Child care centers currently operate on the DH campuses of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H., New London Hospital and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt. The CCBA collaboration would be the first off-campus program in the Dartmouth Health system.

The collaboration also includes the ECEA, with the new child care center at the CCBA serving as a “training site for the ECEA’s career cultivator training program for early childhood educators,” Isabelle said.

The training program’s intent is to serve as a staffing pipeline for child care centers throughout the Upper Valley.

“We’ve experienced shortages of lead teachers for years,” Artman said. “This is why ECEA’s role in building the early child care workforce is so important in our partnership.”

The Lebanon Schoo l Dist rict’s public for um on the Hanover Street School child care room proposal will take place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28 in the Lebanon High School library.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@v news.com or 603-727-3208.