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News | Health Education and Human SciencesSeptember 06, 2022

UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center Announced

The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith announced Tuesday, September 6, 2022, a partnership with the Arkansas Department of Human Services that will bring in more than $1 million to help the campus build and staff an early childhood education center.

UAFS employs and educates hundreds of essential workers who face barriers daily when planning for child care during a critical shortage of safe, reliable, and affordable facilities in the region. In the spring of 2021, UAFS proposed a partnership with the Arkansas Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education to provide child care services for the campus community.

“The UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will serve 42 children from the ages of birth-three,” explained Dr. Shelli Henehan, professor, assessment coordinator, and director of Early Childhood Education at UAFS – and the lead in developing this partnership. “I truly believe this center will be transformative, as it will include collaborations among multiple programs in the College of Health, Education and Human Sciences.” 

“We are so grateful for this funding from the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education and the ability to provide the highest quality of care for our youngest learners,” she said.

The $1.1 million project, which was officially funded in full on Sept. 1, will enable the university to renovate the Echols Building to transform the elementary school turned campus laboratory back into a childcare facility. Located on the southeast corner of the UAFS campus, with convenient access to parking, age-appropriate play spaces, and both interior hallway and exterior doors, the location is a perfect fit for the forward-thinking renovation.

Three classrooms will be remodeled and outfitted for the best care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. A large playground will be fenced and turned into an outdoor learning environment.

The university also received operations funding for the center’s first year, which will enable the center to go through the Better Beginnings Initiative process.

As a regional public university, UAFS employs and educates primarily residents of Sebastian and Crawford counties. In 2020, more than 12 percent of enrolled students were both PELL eligible, demonstrating a high financial need, and identified themselves as having dependent children.

In a survey of all UAFS students conducted in 2019, an overwhelming majority, 90.78% of students, responded that they would gladly support a childcare center.

“We know that many parents struggle with finding affordable, quality childcare,” said Dr. Monica Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education. “The inability to find accessible childcare creates such a significant barrier for some students that it could very well end their educational journey. UAFS provides a myriad of resources to help all students be successful, and opening the Little Lions Child Development Center is yet another way we can support those who are attending the university, as well as those who are employed here.”

A 2016 survey of students confirmed the high need for reliable, affordable childcare, with most respondents stating that child care greatly affected their pursuit of a degree. One student disclosed that she was a single mother of 4 children ranging from 10 to 4 years old, stating that she had to skip class multiple times because she didn’t have a sitter.

In 2019, a second survey echoed the 2016 responses. One student noted the difficulty in obtaining childcare, saying, “I don’t have reliable people to be able to care for my child and have tried to put him in daycare, but he’s on a waitlist.”  Another shared the difficulty in having childcare near home but far from school, stating, “My 3-year-old is in the Head Start program in Waldron (1 hr. away from campus). I have to schedule my classes to be able to make it back home to pick her up by three.”  When asked how greatly having child care on campus would impact involvement on campus, 26% said it would greatly impact their involvement.

“In addition to providing high-quality childcare services to the UAFS campus community, the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will also afford students in the College of Health, Education, and Human Sciences a variety of educational opportunities that will serve to enhance and enrich the learning experiences in their respective programs,” said Dean of the College of Health, Education and Human Science, Dr. Dean Cantu. “To be certain, the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will serve as a multidisciplinary nexus of authentic learning opportunities for students in our respective programs of study, from Education and Nursing to Dental Hygiene and Social Work.”

“The center will also play an essential role in our Early Childhood Education program as a true laboratory for teaching and learning, which serves to foster interdisciplinary and community collaboration. As a faculty member at a previous university that had a K-12 school on their campus, I witnessed first-hand early in my career the tremendous value added by integrating experiences in this real-world environment into the curricula of the respective teacher preparation programs,” Cantu added. “The UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center holds this same potential to both serve the community as well as to provide an ideal setting for our students to engage in field learning and clinical experiences.”

In the event the childcare center does not fill all of its classes with UAFS students’ and employees’ children, slots will be open to the broader Fort Smith community.