FORT SMITH -- Students and employees of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith will be able to benefit from a more than $1 million early childhood education center coming to the campus.
The facility will be built and staffed as part of a partnership with the state's Department of Human Services' Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education to provide child care for the campus community, according to a university news release Tuesday.
The project was officially funded in full Thursday, which includes the money needed to operate the center for a year.
"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," the release states.
The university will renovate the Echols Building on the southeast corner of its campus into the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center, the release states. Three classrooms will be remodeled and outfitted to provide care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers while a large playground will be fenced and converted into an outdoor learning environment.
Shelli Henehan, a professor, assessment coordinator and director of the university's Early Childhood Education program, was the lead in developing the partnership with the state, which the university proposed in spring 2021. She said the new center will serve 42 children.
"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," Henehan said in the release.
More than 12% of UAFS students in 2020 were both eligible for federal Pell grants -- which demonstrates a high financial need -- and identified as having dependent children, the release states. The university surveyed all of its students in 2019, when 91% indicated support for a child care center.
"The inability to find accessible child care creates such a significant barrier for some students that it could very well end their educational journey," Monica Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education, said in the release. "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."
Most UAFS students who were surveyed in 2016 and 2019 said child care greatly affected their pursuit of a degree, the release states.
Dean Cantu, dean of the UAFS College of Health, Education and Human Sciences, said the child care center will also provide his students educational opportunities that will "enhance and enrich the learning experiences in their respective programs." This includes education, nursing, dental hygiene and social work.
"The center will also play an essential role in our Early Childhood Education program as a true laboratory for teaching and learning, which serves to foster interdisciplinary and community collaboration," Cantu said. "As a faculty member at a previous university that had a K-12 school on their campus, I witnessed firsthand early in my career the tremendous value added by integrating experiences in this real-world environment into the curricula of the respective teacher preparation programs."
Rachel Putman, associate director for strategic communications for UAFS, said renovation of the Echols Building will begin this month. The university anticipates having the center fully open by August. The estimated budget for the project is more than $1.24 million, with more than $1 million coming from a state grant and the rest coming from the university.
Possible public vacancies
Slots for classes at the Little Lions Child Development Center will be open to the broader Fort Smith community if they aren’t all filled by children of students and employees of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
Source: University of Arkansas-Fort Smith