Twisp opens next month, Winthrop has begun construction
By Ann McCreary
Little Star Montessori School is expanding childcare and early childhood education programs in the Methow Valley, with a focus on the community’s youngest and most needy residents.
A new early education and childcare center is nearing completion in Twisp, and groundbreaking has begun on a new classroom building adjacent to Little Star School in Winthrop that will be completed in 2018. Both facilities will serve children 0 – 3 years old and their families.
“We’re working to increase opportunities for early learning and childcare across our entire valley,” said Dani Reynaud, Little Star’s executive director.
The projects in Winthrop and Twisp are the culmination of several years of information gathering and planning to address a critical shortage of affordable childcare for infants and toddlers in the valley.
They are also the realization of a vision that Little Star’s founder, Rayma Hayes, held for decades, Reynaud said. Hayes founded Little Star in 1982 and taught there until her death from cancer in March this year.
“It was Rayma’s dream to serve babies. From the Montessori perspective, everything begins when babies are born,” Reynaud said. “Rayma was with us every step of the way for the visioning, so it feels really good to know we are carrying her decades of work at Little Star forward. Building these spaces is the best way we can honor her legacy.”
Hayes was able to see work begin on renovating space at TwispWorks for the Little Star South Collaborative (LSSC), which opens in September, providing childcare and education for four infants and 12 toddlers. The project is a collaboration of Little Star School, TwispWorks and Room One, the valley’s social services agency.
An Early Childcare and Education Needs Assessment in 2015 called the shortage of affordable childcare and early childhood education a “crisis” that affects parents, employers and the health of the valley economy. The study found that up to 60 percent of children 5 and under do not have access to needed childcare services, with an especially critical need among 0- to 3-year olds, according to Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One.
“We know that the lack of available, affordable, high-quality early education and childcare in our valley is a relentless struggle for many people,” Mainer said, and is particularly acute for low-income families, those needing care during irregular hours and those living in Twisp.
Key recommendations of the needs assessment were creation of an early education center in Twisp and program expansion by Little Star in Winthrop.
Growing in Winthrop
The infant and toddler programs at both the new Twisp and expanded Winthrop campuses will follow the Montessori model of early childhood education that guides toddler, preschool and kindergarten programs at Little Star.
Montessori education, as described by the American Montessori Society, is a child-centered approach that views children as naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values development of the whole child—physical, social, emotional and cognitive.
Teachers are attending trainings and receiving mentoring in preparation for the new infant and expanded toddler programs, Reynaud said. Little Star expects to create up to 10 new jobs to serve the added programs, she said.
At both Winthrop and Twisp, the schools will provide childcare for infants and toddlers from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. every day, and the LSSC in Twisp will offer full-time childcare during summer. When expansion is completed, Little Star expects to enroll 125 students through the school and childcare programs.
The new Winthrop building will open in September 2018, and include one infant and two toddler classrooms, a kitchen, a teachers lounge and the school administrative office, which will move from the current Little Star School building next door.
It also will include a large “activity space” that will provide a play area when the weather doesn’t allow outdoor activities, said Eric Godwin, head of a building committee overseeing the project. That space can also be used for community meetings and performances, Godwin said. Rayma Hayes, known for staging elaborate student plays, “always envisioned a place where you could get people together to put on a show,” Godwin said.
The activity area will open onto an outdoor courtyard, Godwin said. Outside playgrounds will be designed for different age groups, and landscaping and pathways will connect the two school buildings.
Designed by Winthrop resident Margo Peterson Aspholm of Prentiss Balance Wickline Architects, the building combines “modern and barnlike” qualities, Godwin said. Jeff Brown of Mazama is the builder.
A key element of Little Star’s expansion is providing support — both social and financial — for families of students, Reynaud said.
LSSC has designated spaces for children who are part of Room One and other support services and will provide financial aid through a scholarship program.
Through Little Star’s partnership with Room One, the families at LSSC will receive “wrap-around” support through a family advocate who will help families address needs like housing, health insurance, volunteer legal services, mental health counseling and benefits through the state Department of Social and Health Services, Mainer said. The advocate will also direct families to things like free fresh produce, admission and gear for local outdoor activities, and tickets to arts and cultural events.
The family advocate will adopt a “mobile advocacy” approach, meeting parents and families at their homes or in the community if that works best, said Adrianne Moore, associate director of Room One. The advocate also will work with teachers at the schools to identify needs of children and families and best ways to support them.
Room One also plans to work with parents at LSSC to establish an advisory committee, which will examine the inequities and barriers the families face, and develop ideas for ways to address those issues, Moore said.
Investing in children
To assist families with tuition, Little Star is planning to expand its scholarship fund, Reynaud said. Up to 60 percent of the 125 students enrolled are expected to receive some kind of financial assistance.
Little Star’s expanded early education and childcare programs complement initiatives undertaken by the Methow Valley School District in response to the 2015 needs assessment, said Superintendent Tom Venable.
To complement the new and expanded programs, the Methow Valley School District will offer full-day Head Start programs for preschoolers beginning this fall, and has expanded after-school childcare and enrichment programs for elementary students — both recommendations of the needs assessment.
According to Superintendent Tom Venable, expanding early childhood education for the valley’s youngest children “may be the single most impactful investment (we) can make in support of its long-term health, wellness and economic vitality.”
Venable cited a recent University of Chicago study that found a return of $13-$15 for every dollar invested in early childhood education, measured in terms of less crime, incarceration, unemployment and health care costs.
“It’s hard to imagine a better, long-term, sustainable investment of our community’s limited resources,” he said.