A group of about 20 preschoolers were playing in the main room of Kickstart Preschool in Two Harbors the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 14, building model skyscrapers with blocks, working with Tinkertoys and playing in an indoor sandbox.
While the kids work with teachers and play with each other, the building next door is under heavy construction.
Owner and lead teacher Deb Archer works to get everything in order for Kickstart's planned expansion into a child care center in early December. She is still waiting for carpet to be installed in the second building. Most of the remaining work includes finishing touches on the commercial kitchen and nursery areas.
Deb and her husband, Brett Archer, principal at Minnehaha Elementary School, have been working for most of the last year on expanding the school into a preschool and a child care facility for children from birth to age 5.
Deb's office is a whirlwind of papers, books and binders she uses to document her school's compliance and intention to comply with state regulations and policies for child care centers.
"Just opening a child care center is a huge process just because there are so many regulations that you have to meet," Deb said. "The state has so many guidelines that you have to meet just to open. There are lists of licensing regulations we have to meet, you have to have 20 sets of cognitive toys, 20 sets of manipulative toys. The policies that have to be in place just to be licensed as a child care center. I am sure that is why more people don't do it."
In her office Monday evening, Deb pulls out her thoroughly tabbed copy of Minnesota's child care center guidelines that stipulates the requirements she must meet, down to the square footage per child and the minimum bulletin board space.
The manual has become a constant companion in the months since she and her husband decided to expand Kickstart from a preschool earlier this year to a child care center available for children from birth to five years old.
"Deb has always been teaching in the school and when we went down this road and starting to do this expansion, just to handle the paperwork, Deb has stepped out of the classroom," Brett said. "So she has spent the last two months working on paperwork getting this thing ready to go and managing the building process."
The Archers started Kickstart in 2008 in response to a need for more preschool options in Lake County and after a few years the couple moved from the space they leased in the county to its current spot that once served a the home for Deb, Brett and their three daughters. Even when they purchased the property for their family, the couple thought it would be a nice spot for a center. It's location on Highway 61 makes it convenient for both Two Harbors residents and even Duluth parents coming up to work in Two Harbors or further up the North Shore.
The couple made the choice to expand in response to an ongoing child care shortage in Minnesota. In northern Minnesota alone, there is an estimated shortfall of nearly 5,000 spaces between the number and capacity of currently licensed providers and the estimated number of children under six with both parents working, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato. Once finished, Kickstart will grow from its current capacity of 20 preschoolers to 40 preschool students, 14 toddlers and eight infants.
Working with the Northland Foundation, the Archers were able to apply and secure a $50,000 grant from Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development, largely in response to the need for more early childhood education opportunities in the area. In addition, the couple worked with the Center for Economic Development at the University of Minnesota Duluth to ensure the couple's plan was financially viable.
Center offers more than home daycares
In addition to more spaces, Kickstart's child care center will offer more educational opportunities than home day care providers. Teachers will be turning in age-specific weekly lesson plans that target specific skills, like object permanence and visual tracking for infants.
"If they hide a toy underneath a blanket, is the baby going to be able to figure out if the toy still there, even though they can't see it?" Deb said. "If they hold a toy, is the baby going to be able to track it when they move it?"
What's more, Kickstart doesn't have computers or TVs for children to watch during the day, and it's not planned for the preschool, either.
"We're not doing screen time here — we figure they get that at home," she said. "We want them to be hands-on learning. We want them to learn and experience things."
For the Archers, opening a child care center like Kickstart is a "lifelong dream" that feeds into Deb's passion for young children and opening up new worlds for them as the grow and mature. The added bonus is that it fills a niche in the community, said Deb, who's worked with preschoolers for 20 years.
"It's just what I love to do," Deb said. "I love their energy ...They're excited to see you all the time. I love showing them new things. I've been in early childhood since I graduated and it's just my passion — it's what I want to do."
The Archers plan to open the expanded child care center Dec. 4 and Kickstart is accepting registrations at kickstartpreschool.com. There will be an open house from 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, for parents.