Ironwood rallies to find solutions to childcare shortage

Like other communities in the U.P. and elsewhere, Ironwood is struggling with a shortage of childcare facilities.

The issue became even more acute this summer when the Diocese of Marquette and Our Lady of Peace Parish announced they wanted out of the daycare business. The church had been operating the All Saints Academy Little Lambs Childcare at the All Saints Academy Catholic elementary school in Ironwood for several years. 

The lack of childcare options in Ironwood, a growing community in Gogebic County, the westernmost in the U.P. with a population of about 14,000 residents, had already been a concern. Two other childcare centers in Ironwood closed earlier in the year

The change in operations at the church-owned site spurred parents and the community to rally to find solutions to the childcare issue. 

Background: When the All Saints Academy Little Lambs Childcare launched operations with a handful of toddlers six years ago, it used only a single classroom at the All Saints Academy Catholic elementary school in Ironwood. Since then, the school’s elementary population has dwindled while the need for daycare has soared. The school, in fact, closed in 2020; the daycare operation, with an enrollment of 190 children, ranging in age from six weeks to 12 years old has spread into the rest of the building. The diocese announced in the summer it no longer wanted to operate the daycare.

The childcare need: Ironwood Chamber of Commerce executive director Michael Meyer says the demand for quality childcare is critical. “There is an enormous need here,” Meyer says, as manufacturing, health care and a new winter resort in the region have all expanded their need for workers. In a recent presentation about Recent Economic Trends in the Western Upper Peninsula (by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis), surveyed workers cited the lack of childcare as the biggest challenge they face. “In the past two years many people have moved here,” Meyer says, but young families need reliable child care options to be available to work. 

Changes afoot: Given that level of need, there’s been consternation among parents and the community since the Diocese of Marquette and Our Lady of Peace Parish announced in July that they wanted out of the daycare business, opting instead to lease the space at the school instead of sharing its nonprofit status with Little Lambs.

Kim Anderson, program director of the daycare, was among those bidding for the lease. But the Diocese of Marquette and Our Lady of Peace Parish announced on social media this week that the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District (GOISD) has been selected to operate in the building and is currently working on a plan to transition the operations of the center.  

Although the transition details are still uncertain, the new center, renamed Little Learners Early Childhood Center, has posted on its Facebook page its intention to operate the center independently from the church. Under the ISD’s direction, the new center plans to operate from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 pm, Monday through Friday, year-round. Programming will include before and after school care, infant care, toddler care, and preschool programming.  A summer camp program will also be available to school-aged children in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

Programming is dependent on the appropriate staffing of the center, and GOISD is offering to employ all Little Lambs Childcare Center staff members who wish to remain as a part of the program.  

That offer of employment has also been made by the former Little Lambs program director, Anderson,  who in partnership with Chandra Moreno, had also submitted a bid to lease space from the church under the auspices of  the new Ironwood Early Learning Academy. Although they are unable to continue at the Catholic school site, their plan is to begin a new program in the former Sleight School building at 108 E. Arch St. 

That location, Moreno says, has capacity for 60 children in four licensed rooms on the main floor and will scale up from there when funds are available for the additional fire suppression systems that an expansion would require. “We are hoping that the grants that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is releasing concerning daycare facility startups … are available” to finish that fire suppression system, Moreno says.

The new business will begin as an LLC and is working with attorney Nicholas Tselpis to set up a board of directors and take steps to become a licensed nonprofit within four years, Moreno said. 

A Fun Frolic Halloween-theme community fundraising carnival will be held at the Early Learning Academy’s Sleight School location, 108 E. Arch St., from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28.

In a statement on Ironwood Early Learning Academy’s Facebook page, Anderson says she remains committed to “continuing to offer high quality daycare services to families of the Range.”  and looks forward to commencing operations on January 1, 2023. 

Head Start program also runs a preschool on Margaret Street with capacity for 48 children, according to the state on Michigan’s licensing site.

Planning for future demand: In more recent developments,  Ironwood Area Schools has purchased a former nursing home on East Ayer Street to create a new day care center there once the building is renovated. Travis Powell, superintendent of Ironwood Area Schools, says the district purchased the former Josephson's Nursing Home, adjacent to the school property, through a tax foreclosure sale in August. 

Future site of a daycare in Ironwood.

“We are in the process of working with an architectural firm to determine how to best renovate the space into a building that will help us meet the needs of our school and community,” Powell says.

The initial vision is to develop the space into an 'early childhood center,' with a daycare and programs for four-year-olds, kindergarteners and possibly first-graders. "We are also exploring how to develop the space into a format that would be best able to support our before and after school program,” he says.
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