BENSON — Aware of the child care needs in the community, the Benson Public Schools took a big step this year.
The district expanded its Discovery Kids child care center programming to include infants and toddlers. The center in the former junior high building is now open to children ages six weeks through 6 years.
Robyn Dehne, Discovery Kids director, admits that she was among those who initially found it hard to imagine what it would be like having babies in a school building. Now she knows: The infant room is the most popular. "Everybody comes down to hold a baby,'' she said, laughing.
And increasingly, parents are discovering Discovery Kids. It has continued to see growth in the number of children in the infants, toddlers and school-aged care programs it offers, said Shelly Vergin, community education director for the district. It's licensed for 16 infants and 28 toddlers.
Its doors are open from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and remain open year around, closing only for six holidays.
It includes a staff of 10 adults and five to six high school-aged helpers. Its location on the school campus offers advantages, starting with daily, hot lunches. It's connected to a fenced, outdoor playground. When the weather turns cold or wet, the children have access to an indoor gym.
And always, the center's doors are secured and remotely controlled as part of the school's security system.
Vergin said the Benson Schools were fortunate to have space available to offer child care services. The school began offering preschool child care services in 1994 with its initial program known as Safe B.A.S.E., or Safe Before and After School Environment.
Stepping up to offer the services available today meant adding staffing and lots of equipment, educational toys and other supplies to meet state requirements. Vergin and Dehne said the school received donated items from community residents, and has enjoyed good support.
Vergin emphasized that the school is not seeking to take away children from home-based centers in the community. Its goal is to meet the unmet needs.
The Swift County-Benson Hospital, Case Manufacturing and Custom Roto Mold were among the employers making known how the need for child care has affected their ability to recruit and retain employees.
Dehne knows the challenges parents face too, and how important quality child care is to them. Before she took her position at Discovery Kids, she was on the verge of opening her own home-based center after struggling to find a daycare provider for her child.
She said one mother with a child enrolled with Discovery Kids lives in Hancock and works in Morris. She makes the Hancock to Benson to Morris trip each morning, and in reverse at the end of the day.
Vergin said the center offers the school an opportunity to build relationships with families that could lead to long-term enrollment benefits.
School board members are supportive of the educational benefits the center provides, Vergin said. When they reach kindergarten, children who have been attending the center have a ready-made network of friends and are ready for this next step.
She and Dehne said the long-term goal is to make the center financially self-sustaining. Vergin said the partners in this venture know it will take time to get there.
The school district, city of Benson, and the Swift County-Benson Hospital are partners in making the Discovery Kids center possible. At the end of the fiscal year, each has pledged to help make up the expected financial shortfall. The Robert Sonsteng Foundation is also supporting the effort.