By Tim Rowland
The calls began before the first shovelful of earth was turned. The informal Balsam Telegraph was buzzing with word that Little Peaks Daycare Center in Keene was about to expand, and families across the Eastern Adirondacks wanted in.
The rumors were indeed accurate, and this summer Little Peaks broke ground on a new center that will triple its capacity and play at least a small part in alleviating a growing crisis that affects not just young families, but local governments, businesses and ultimately the tourism upon which the Adirondack economy is based.
The center will open next summer.
Executive Director Reid Jewett Smith, who holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, said that child care and housing are the two most critical issues facing Adirondack communities. At a recent forum, a public school administrator got her attention when he opined that in 30 years, if those twin problems remain unsolved, there will be no public schools.
Smith and her husband Matt saw the problem first-hand. They arrived at the onset of the pandemic when Matt took a position as director of North Country School. With a 1-year-old in tow and expecting another, Smith said she began searching online for child care. Much like the Banks children in Mary Poppins, she had her list for what would make the perfect provider. When the perfect provider didn’t exist, she began to lower her requirements. “I started removing all the filters,” she said. Still nothing.
Smith, in typical Adirondack fashion, was patching together jobs that allowed her to work from home, and writing her doctoral dissertation “one sentence at a time” with a child on her knee.
When the Little Peaks project was announced, along with the need for the school’s first executive director, it seemed a perfect fit. Smith said she was impressed that all the cutting edge pedantic theories she’d read about in her studies “were things Little Peaks had been doing for years.”
Along with larger accommodations for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, the center will be open all day and will build on the Little Peaks philosophy of play- and nature-based learning that encourages children to seek out answers to their own questions.
Katherine Brown, who helped found Little Peaks 30 years ago, said child care was identified as one of four critical areas of need to be addressed by Keene’s new comprehensive plan. Subsequent surveys in and around the town identified an intense interest in child care, which has been disappearing from the Adirondack landscape.
Looking for solutions
Communities have been forced to come up with their own solutions for care, which is challenging because each community is different, making it hard to draw up a one-size-fits all model. Essex County recently allocated $100,000 to help local agencies provide a tailwind to people who want to run daycare out of their homes but can’t due to onerous red tape or expensive start-up costs.
Ticonderoga has an elementary school left half-empty when middle school students were consolidated into the high school. Community leaders believe it would make an excellent daycare center, but so far their efforts have bumped up against state regulations preventing any incidental contact between younger and older children.
Brown said Little Peaks is not a silver bullet that would work in other communities. Keene’s demographic was too well-off for state help, so Little Peaks’ expansion was made possible by some impactful donations from members of the community, which are funding, in cash and construction, the $1.2 million center and establishing a $3 million endowment that will help provide scholarships for families who would not otherwise be able to afford the cost. Tuition will be on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The center will have 12 employees, and Brown said it was also important to the school to pay a living wage.
“The cost to the center will be $1,200 to $1,400 per month per child, but we are building up our scholarship fund to serve as an endowment that can subsidize that at varying levels,” Smith said. “The state will pay $800 a month for families at or below the federal poverty level, but that will not cover our costs of running the center and paying our teachers a living wage. Our scholarship fund, which was just started with a $500,000 gift from local philanthropist Annette Merle-Smith, will ultimately help close the gap between cost and affordability.”
The financial support from community benefactors allow Little Peaks to sidestep a nettlesome Catch 22: Daycare centers that pay enough to attract help (or make it worthwhile for a single provider) have to charge parents more than they can afford for a slot.
Little Peaks will have three rooms for differing age groups and a fourth as an all-purpose room that could conceivably be used for future expansion, Brown said. The center has typically accepted children from Keene and neighboring towns, and will continue to do so.
The school will be in the heart of the hamlet, across from Town Hall, and will fit the Adirondack environmental ethic, with solar panels, EV chargers and a pollinator garden. The property was originally envisioned as a potential location for affordable housing, and that plan is still operational. Smith said the development will include four lots for below-market-cost homes, that well be kept that way in perpetuity.
In the big picture, the center represents the importance of formative-year education, a field that has historically been associated with high expense, low pay and patchwork community coverage.
“The whole country needs to value the raising of children,” Brown said. “These are real human beings and we can have an important impact on their lives.”