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Room to roam: Partners to open former Missoula school building as new daycare

Parents with toddlers who plan to continue sending their children to the new Missoula Early Learning Center when it opens in the fall include, from left to right, Shannon Sanden with sons Sam and Jack; and Desiree Swehla with son Loic. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Public and private partners officially christened the Cold Springs School building on Wednesday as the future home of the Missoula Early Learning Center daycare, which will house 192 children when it opens in the fall.

Mark Roberts, majority owner and business manager of the Missoula Early Learning Center, said the project will spend roughly $1.1 million to renovate the school starting on Feb. 1. About 95% of the funding is privately secured.

The for-profit MELC will transfer to the new location south of Walmart off Brooks Street. The organization is accepting applications.

“The use of a retired school facility is perfect for childcare and with it will bring 120 new slots in the Missoula community,” said Will Johnson, the former board chair of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce.

Missoula County Public Schools, plus the chamber and MELC, collaborated on the co-op business model to provide families with more access to affordable daycare, including infants starting at age 6 weeks and up to preschool.

Rob Watson, MCPS superintendent, praised the “compatible use” of repurposing the building and combining forces.

“We are really excited about this opportunity,” said Watson. “As you can imagine, when you build a new school facility, like we did with Jeannette Rankin Elementary, there’s always a question about what will happen with the existing facility.”

Watson also praised the partnership that represents a year of study, a poll of parents by the chamber on childcare needs, and broad community collaboration.

“As an educator, I value the importance of early childhood education,” said Watson. “I know that the work that we do, starting in kindergarten, really depends on what happens to students before they get to kindergarten. It’s an important piece to our educational journey … for our youngest, future MCPS students.”

The space will put a dent in the already tight daycare market in Missoula, where even pregnant moms scramble to put their child on a waiting list for various centers around town.

“It think that there’s just a need in Missoula for child care,” said Desiree Swehla, mother of Loic, who will transfer to the new facility. “I hear from friends all the time that there’s pretty much not a lot to chose from – especially infant care. Even people who are pregnant get on waiting lists.”

Roberts said the new facility will work to keep the high cost of daycare down for parents, who can seek income-based financial assistance from the state and a scholarship from Child Care Resources.

“The goal is to keep the costs within where we have them established now at our current facility: under $850 a month for 5 days a week for kiddos,” said Roberts. “Our goal is to drastically change the rate of increase that happens over the course of years … and to expand upon infant and toddler space as well without making that such a financial burden.”

Staff will work in 35,000 square feet of space and 14 classrooms – each with its own bathroom, plus a cafeteria. The architect firm Cushing Terrell has been tabbed to lead renovations to upgrade the facility.

Roberts’ staff will increase from 16 to 55. Staff will include educators, a maintenance crew and cooks.

“We’re so excited,” said Shannon Sanden, mother of two toddler boys who have attended Missoula Early Learning Center for most of their lives. “They’re taking the success that they’ve had at MELC and expanding it into the community.”

Sanden said the Cold Springs location is closer to the family home. She and others who are already enrolled in MELC will automatically transfer to the location.

“The curriculum is play-based and a nice balance between social and emotional learning and fundamentals,” added Sanden.

It remains to be seen whether MELC will maintain two facilities. Roberts said he pays $28 per square foot to lease the 4,000-square foot Ernest Street building and worries about the high property taxes accrued in the commercial neighborhood.