Learning Tree Childcare Center in Lansing is helping to increase affordable childcare offerings in Allamakee County

Learning Tree Care Center Board members ... Left to right: Sierra Colsch, Paige Brennan (with her daughter, Rowan Brennan, a student in the Learning Tree three-year-old program), Taylor Crane, Alberto Whitlatch and Center Director Jenny Cole. Not pictured is Board President Lisa Welsh. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Library Board visits Learning Tree Childcare Center ... Members of the board of directors of the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library paid a visit to Learning Tree Childcare Center, which is housed in the lower level of the library in Lansing. The adults pictured in the photo above during the visit include, left to right, Learning Tree Assistant Teacher Abby Nuehring, Library Board members Deb Dietzenbach, Sara Majewski, Joan Hennessy, Lenny Emerich, Janice Rea and Library Director Derva Burke, and Learning Tree Director and Teacher Jenny Cole. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

“Childcare,” according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), “is at the core of U.S. society.”

By way of explanation, CAP’s website offers this: “Children rely on childcare services for safe, enriching early learning environments; parents rely on the services of childcare providers so that they can pursue work or school and build financial stability to provide for their families; and businesses rely on the childcare sector to ensure a stable workforce and consumer base” (americanprogress.org).

Thanks to the combined and committed efforts of many people - all building on one woman’s idea - Lansing is helping to increase affordable childcare offerings in Allamakee County.

The Learning Tree Childcare Center opened in late August in the basement of the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library, under the directorship of Jenny Cole of Lansing. Right now, The Learning Tree is solely a preschool, and is fully enrolled - with 16 students, ages three to four, from the communities of Lansing (7), New Albin (7), and De Soto, WI (2). The Learning Tree board of directors is looking, though, to expand to before- and after-school care for four-year-old Pre-K to fourth grade.

“We are currently working on a strategic plan to help meet the needs of our Lansing and New Albin communities for childcare from birth to school age,” Cole says.

Cole describes the Learning Tree Childcare Center’s mission as being “to provide accessible early learning and childcare programs that provide a safe, developmentally appropriate, and inclusive environment to meet the needs of each child and family we serve.”

Currently, the center provides all-day preschool Tuesdays and Thursdays during the academic year. School starts at 8:15 a.m. and ends at 3:10 p.m. The Center also offers wrap-around care in the morning and afternoon to help parents with transportation and childcare.

“I have honestly thought about a childcare center since graduating college in 2011,” Cole says. She studied family services and youth administration at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) and began working at UNI’s Child Development Center during her junior year of college. She worked specifically in the three-year-old classroom while often working as a substitute in other rooms from birth to Pre-K.

“It was my first experience seeing how important early education was and the benefits it could have on the child and their family,” Cole says. “That is where the seed was planted to start a similar program ‘back home’ for our Lansing and New Albin communities.”

Cole says she really became serious about starting with a three-year-old program after her daughter Kennedy attended the Clover Patch 3-Year-Old Preschool at St. Pat’s in Waukon.

“We loved the program, and I had a strong desire to have a similar program for Lansing and New Albin,” Cole shared. “I started the process to start one in Lansing in early 2022 but found out soon after that my husband needed heart surgery and I would need to stay at my current place of employment at Gundersen Health System since my job carried our health insurance.”

Cole put her preschool plans on the back burner until December 2022 when she was invited to a meeting at Kee High School in Lansing to talk about the need for childcare and housing in the community.

“Everyone was sharing their ideas, and I shared my idea on starting the preschool and expanding from there. I was in the right room with the right people at that meeting and they helped push my ideas for the preschool to a reality.”

Lisa Welsh, in particular, embraced Cole’s ideas, she says, and encouraged her to pursue the preschool idea. “She was great at helping me have conversations with key community members to begin the program,” Cole says.

“Becoming a licensed childcare center is a lot of work and takes many meetings with state officials to ensure one is meeting all the regulations,” Cole says. “I had many days of making phone calls to different contractors/vendors to help me navigate the process. During this time too we started the process to become a 501(c)3 because we wanted to make sure that the preschool was bigger than one person - that if someone could no longer commit, it would continue for our communities.”

They also wanted to be able to write grants and fundraise for the program. “We feel very strongly that no child should be denied access to early education based on their family’s ability to pay for the program,” Cole says. “We have started a fund that helps pay for tuition for students whose parents meet the income qualifications, which comes directly from monetary donations from businesses and community members.”

One of the most difficult factors in starting the childcare center was finding a location. Cole says the elementary school in New Albin would have been ideal; however, the school did not have any open classroom space for them to rent. They looked at different churches and community buildings, but none met State regulations. “The only building we found that did, was the basement of the (Meehan Memorial) Library in Lansing,” she says.

In fact, the space was just waiting for them, after an earlier preschool had been integrated into the school system. “When the library was rebuilt in 2003 the local preschool was an integral part of this rebuild,” Library Director Derva Burke says. “They helped finance the building to include housing of that preschool. That preschool was dismantled when the 4-K classes became part of the school system.”

The library still had classroom space and the fenced-in yard, meeting the criteria for the preschool. “They were able to move right in,” Burke says.

“The library’s board of directors and Director Derva Burke were really great in meeting with us and coming up with a plan to use a room in the library,” Cole says. “I am forever grateful for their willingness to take a leap of faith with me in starting The Learning Tree.”
Indeed, that leap of faith has led to a working partnership that will reap benefits for everyone involved. “This is a great showing of community support, all working together to give our local children a ‘place to grow,’” Burke says. “The library looks forward to coordinating programs - story hour, shows of the children’s talents, and more.”

The library board of trustees has a lease agreement with the preschool running August through May, according to Burke. Some funds are given to the library to help cover general costs, lights, water and heat.  The preschool carries its own insurance.

Cole says children enrolled at the Learning Tree can expect “lots of playing! We use a play-based curriculum. The day is structured around indoor/outdoor playing, center rotations that focus on our current letter, number, and color, and time to work on fine motor skills throughout the day.”

They use games, books, art, sensory materials, and songs to help keep the day fun and interesting, Cole says. “We focus a lot on building routines and social skills.”

They also have breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. “We are so grateful to Kee High School for helping us provide lunch to our students,” she says.

They have a rest time after lunch where, Cole notes, “most of the students fall asleep.” If they do not, the Center offers books and quiet activities for them to do.

The Learning Tree is also committed to helping students learn about the community. “We have many activities planned to meet community members such as visiting the Lansing Clinic to learn about germs, going to the Lansing Fire Station during Fire Safety Week, and having community members come into the classroom to volunteer and read stories to the class,” Cole says.

“We have had great feedback from parents talking about how their child enjoys coming to preschool and how they have seen a difference in their child’s independence in completing different tasks,” Cole says. “We really focus on making a fun learning environment that also helps develop their confidence and independence in doing everyday tasks such as putting on their coat, cleaning up toys and after meals, waiting in line for their turn, having jobs in the classroom, etc. They really love it when they are the table leader, line leader, or light helper.”

Paige Brennan is a Learning Tree board member whose daughter, Rowan, age three, is enrolled in the preschool. “She LOVES preschool,” Brennan says. “She really enjoys being around other kids her age.”

Brennan says she is “most interested in the head start it gives my daughter and other children before moving into elementary school. She’s learning how to be away from home and how to interact with other kids. That’s all just as important to me as learning the alphabet.”

Brennan decided to join the Board of Directors, she says, because she had “an extra passion because I have kids that will benefit from the program. I was ready to do anything to help get the program up and running. If I see a need for my own kids, I know there are other parents out there wanting the same thing.”

Learning Tree Board member Alberto Whitlatch also has a child enrolled in the preschool. “My daughter Eloisa, age three, is greatly enjoying her time at the Learning Tree,” he says. “She looks forward to spending time at the Center every Tuesday and Thursday. She enjoys socializing in a structured environment.”

A teacher who lives in New Albin, Whitlatch first learned of The Learning Tree during meetings at the Eastern Allamakee Schools pertaining to a three-year-old preschool. “Several school officials, community leaders, and community members were discussing ideas to address the lack of three-year-old preschool and childcare in our community,” he recalls.

“Early education is incredibly important to the development of children,” Whitlatch says. “Having students learn how to interact with classmates, follow a routine, and get accustomed to a formal learning environment gives the students a foundation that they will continue to build on as they go through school. The Learning Tree, under the direction of Jenny Cole, is doing an incredible job at teaching all 16 of these kids.”

Cole says that working with the students “truly brings so much joy to my day. It has been so fun to watch them make connections with each other and, also, to navigate the hard challenge of sharing with each other. They are at such a fun age where everything is new and exciting.”

“I believe that the Learning Tree will not only be helping the 16 kids attending, but also is a great asset to the Lansing-New Albin Community,” Whitlatch says. “I joined the Board because I want this center to be successful and I am going to do what I can to help this become a reality.”

According to a 2023 Iowa Childcare Workforce Study (https://i2d2.iastate.edu/), Iowa’s “families, childcare providers, and employers as a whole are facing severe childcare challenges, not unlike those in other states across the U.S.” Further, the study notes, “Iowa is among states with the highest rates of all parents (or the only parent) in the home who are also working (76%), and Iowa has a very low unemployment rate with many employers seeking additional workers (U.S. Census Bureau). Providing high quality childcare for the over half a million children in Iowa under the age of 12 (with 236,000 under age five) has been recognized as one of the biggest challenges to growing Iowa’s economy.”

This challenge, one which is facing families, businesses and communities across the country, is frequently referred to in terms of “childcare deserts” - defined at childcaredeserts.org as “any census tract with more than 50 children under age five that contains either no childcare providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed childcare slots.”

“There is definitely a need for childcare in our area and throughout the entire state of Iowa and beyond,” Cole says. “I know so many families that have struggled to find childcare in their community.”

Learning Tree Board member Brennan says her family has felt the effects of living where childcare is scarce. “My husband and I both work, and luckily, I work from an in-home office,” she says. “I am the default option when our kids’ daycare is closed. I don’t know how we would possibly make it work if I worked outside the home. We absolutely need more childcare options if we want more young families moving to Lansing.”

Board member Whitlatch says he, too, knows the challenges of childcare scarcity. “The childcare provider we were using closed recently and we are still working on where to send our two youngest children,” he says. “Quality childcare is essential to a prosperous community. Not only does lack of childcare cause children to miss out on the opportunity to develop crucial skills, but it creates a heavy toll on local economies. When parents do not have childcare, they miss work.”

One important childcare organization in Allamakee County - Postville Childcare Services, Inc. - has been facing a financial crisis shared throughout the childcare industry. “Postville Childcare Services is a critical part of the Postville community that has served so many children and families,” Cole says. “They are currently facing staffing shortages due to the delicate balance of paying staff a fair wage vs. keeping the cost low enough that parents are able to afford the tuition.”

Allamakee County has been selected to participate in what Cole describes as “a huge opportunity” – a Wage Enhancement Program (WEP) aimed at helping the county retain skilled childcare workers by establishing for them a livable wage, while at the same time keeping childcare costs affordable to parents. “The Iowa Women’s Foundation (IWF) has been working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to explore ways the State can help,” Cole says.

With the resulting formation of the Allamakee Wage Enhancement Fund, pledges submitted to that fund by community organizations, businesses, and individuals by October 20, 2023, will be matched 1:1 by the State of Iowa. The recommended donation range is between $5,000 and $25,000 from local businesses and between $50 and $1000 from community members. The goal is to raise $250,000 and have HHS match $250,000 bringing the total amount to $500,000.

According to information provided at the website for Postville Childcare Services, “payment can occur after October 20 and in installments. For example: A pledge of $4,000 can be made in monthly payments of $500 paid by June 2024; a pledge of $200 can be made in monthly payments of $25 paid by June 2024; a pledge of $500 can be made in quarterly payments of $166 paid by June 2024.”

“Increasing the wage for childcare employees is vital to help battle the childcare desert,” Cole says. “On average, childcare teachers make 40% less than the median employment earnings in Allamakee County. Childcare teachers need to be paid more, but we also need to make sure services are affordable to parents. The Wage Enhancement Program is one of the best ways we can accomplish this as a community.”

Pledge forms can be mailed to Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, 325 Washington Street, Decorah, Iowa 52101 or emailed to Regional Planner Michelle Barness, mbarness@uerpc.org. Contact will then be made at a later date with those who pledge in to arrange payment options.

“I have really enjoyed getting to work with so many different community members and watching businesses and community members invest in our youngest citizens,” Cole says. “I feel strongly that we need to invest in all youth in our communities from birth to graduation. If we want to see our communities continue to thrive, we have to invest in youth and families as they are the backbone and future of our communities.”

More information about The Learning Tree can be found at www.facebook.com/thelearningtreecc. Jenny Cole can be contacted by email at thelearningtreeccdiretor@gmail.com.