A few years ago, only 50% of the child care needs in Coffey County were being met, said Craig Marshall, superintendent of Burlington Unified School District 244.
In 2018, the Coffey County Health Department did a survey on that specific topic. A few months later, in January 2019, a communitywide meeting took place to discuss the need for additional child care options.
“We found out it may have been worse,” Marshall said about the child care situation.
A month later, there was a follow-up meeting with child care providers in the community to gather their input about adding additional child care options.
“They indicated to us that it was an extreme need,” Marshall said.
The entire Burlington community worked together to solve the problem. Through grants, donations from area businesses, money from Coffee County Commissioners, a donation of a building from the city of Burlington and lots of hard work, the Burlington Early Learning Center (BELC) opened in June 2021.
“We had a lot of community partners,” Marshall said. “There are still a lot of partnerships happening.”
The city of Burlington provided its former city hall building to Burlington USD 244, which allowed the district to move its offices from a building located next to the Burlington Elementary School to the former city hall. BELC took over the former district office building.
Having BELC located so closely to the elementary school is beneficial when BELC students make the transition from the center to Burlington Elementary School.
A Mobilizing Literacy grant funded by the W.S. and E.C. Jones Trust allows Amanda Briggs, who is employed through Burlington USD 244, to work with BELC and other local child care facilities and preschools to prepare students for the transition to kindergarten.
“She has been really instrumental in getting students the services they need,” said Lori Johnson, a Kansas Parents as Teachers lead program educator.
BELC has recently started a partnership with Parents as Teachers. Johnson helps with administering the Ages & Stages Questionnaires (ASQ), which help provide a snapshot of a child’s developmental milestones. She also is planning some early childhood groups that will take place at BELC. The center also partners with Flint Hills Cooperative to offer developmental delay special education referrals to families with children ages birth to 3.
Flint Hills Cooperative has access to occupational, physical and speech language therapists, as well as a social worker, said Shellie Bair, with Flint Hills Infant Toddler Network.
When it first opened in June 2021, BELC provided services to 18 children, ages birth to 5. With a license extension, the center can now have up to 74 children. However, the staff members want to provide the best services possible and currently offer services to only 48 students, with a waiting list of about 20, said Taylor Akers, director of the center.
The center is open from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with availability for extended hours if needed by families.
The center breaks classes into the following categories:
BELC has 20 staff members, including teachers, aides and kitchen staff.
The school district, which oversees BELC, serves 835 students in three schools - an elementary school (pre-K through fourth grade), a middle school (fifth through eighth grades) and a high school (ninth through 12th). There also is an extended learning service for students ages 18-21.
There are about 8,700 people in Coffey County and 2,500 in Burlington, Superintendent Marshall said.
“They truly see the need of a day care,” he said. “It is so vital for our city, our county and our school district. It’s a huge asset. There are so many different people – so many different entities – who see the need.”
Autumn Birk is thankful to have BELC in the Burlington community. Her 8-month-old son, Stetson, attends the early learning center.
“There is such a need for child care – good child care,” Birk said. “The staff are wonderful. They really care about our children.”
The center offers an app that connects educators with parents. Educators can send updates to parents, ask questions, notify parents if their child is sick and even provide photographs.
“For a working mom, it’s super helpful,” Birk said about the app.
Lexi Milota, assistant director of BELC, also has two children who attend – a 2-year-old girl and a 10-month-old boy.
“My kids are thriving here,” she said. “I trust our staff completely.”
Milota has worked in multiple child care facilities and said that “the readiness for kindergarten that the early learning center provides is top notch.”
Milota and Akers worked together to run a licensed home child care before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Akers, who operated a home child care 20 years, and Milota reconnected after the pandemic slowed and now work as a team to operate Burlington Early Learning Center.
“It breaks your heart when you have to tell families no,” Akers said about not having enough space to take extra children. “This is bigger than just Burlington. It’s the entire county. We’ve come a long way. There is a learning curve for all of us. But we have a really great set up here. We’re creating something that is preparing these children for school. I think it truly makes a difference in these kids’ lives.”
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