North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN- It was a no-brainer for Aimee Pitlick when she was approached two years ago to be the director of a new childcare facility in Tiffin.
"I missed it. I missed the kids. I missed the work, the good things, the babies," said Pitlick. "You have such an ability to make such a huge impact on them."
Having already run Tiffin's former Busy Bees Preschool and Daycare from 2005-2010, and with a business degree from the University of Northern Iowa, Pitlick was well prepared to take on the task of helping plan a childcare facility from the ground up.
"Having owned my own center prior to this, you think if I could've done something different I would've done that," she said.
And with a little freedom given to her by owners Rebecca Shive, Jim Glasgow and Robert Conrad, she helped design the picture perfect childcare facility.
Sprout Kids Academy opened last September, complete with in-floor heat in the infant rooms to promote warm crawling, low-to-the-ground automatic sinks and fountains to prevent the spreading of germs, and other amenities such as a two-story indoor gymnasium and a large outdoor play space designed by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector.
"There's a lot that goes into putting childcare center together, a lot of little details," said Pitlick.
Like choosing the right furniture, toys and learning tools.
"There are certain toys that are good and certain toys that aren't," Pitlick explained. "We made sure we had the right things for them."
, The best thing for infants is to be on their tummies and backs, which meant no restrictive devices like bouncy seats or swings, but instead a lot of overhead objects and things for them to push themselves up on.
"For toddlers, it's a lot of soft things for them to do tumbling," Pitlick added. They also filled the rooms with earth-toned toys to avoid overloading the little ones' senses with bright colors.
"And the infant rooms all have stall doors, which makes it an easy transition for those that are little, so they can hear what's going on in next room."
The two-story building is designed with the majority of the infant spaces, a kitchen and staff lounge on level one, while the larger classrooms take up the second floor.
With a capacity of 194, Sprouts- as it's been lovingly nicknamed- offers childcare and instruction for children ages 6 weeks to 12 years, including preschool and before and after school programming (BASP).
"I'm not sure that I'll ever get us that far," Pitlick noted of the capacity. "I think that's a lot of kids."
Right now, the center has about 40 kids enrolled, with an average of five to 10 added each month. Rates vary, starting at around $75 per week for before and after school care to $240 per week for full-time infants.
According the 2016 report titled "The Care Index" by Care.com, Iowa ranks 15th in the nation for quality cost of childcare. With a cost per median income of 23 percent, the state's care hovers around $26,000 a year for in-home and $8,000 a year for in-center- compared to the national average of 31 percent, $28,000 in-home and $9,500 in-center.
In relation to the state average, costs at Sprouts are a little higher, but Sprouts isn't the average daycare.
One of the things I've learned is it's not OK to be mediocre," said Pitlick. "That's not always the best thing for kids. We go above and beyond."
In addition to meeting the minimum standards for licensed childcare centers in the State of Iowa, which include the basics like inspections and background checks as well as more-defined staff ratio, curriculum and health requirements, Sprouts demands continuing education of its staff and is pursuing national accreditation.
While the state only requires in-home and licensed center providers to have a high school diploma or GED, Pitlick expects her staff to complete the Iowa Program for Infant and Toddler Care (IA PITC)- a 50-hour program, which is broken down into five training modules consisting of five two-hourlessons ranging from socialization to brain development.
Additionally, Sprouts staff members must attend classes at institutions such as 4Cs Community Coordinate Child Care in Iowa City and the Child Care Resource and Referral program, in Davenport.
"I've yet to find one of them that hasn't been excited coming back from a class," Pitlick said.
The center is also rated a level four out of five by the Iowa Quality Rating System (IQRS), of the Iowa Department of Human Services. Points for categories such as professional development, health and safety, and community partnerships are totaled to reach certain levels.
"The cr?me de la cr?me for us is to be NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) accredited," said Pitlick. "That was another reason when we put this building together, we took those NAEYC standards and implemented them into the design, equipment, and education for staff."
Right now, Sprouts employs eight full-time and nine part-time staff, with an adult-to-infant ratio of about 1-to-3.
"Not to say we can't go up to the 1-to-4 (state standard) babies, but sometimes you have a hard baby. And having a hard baby and a couple other babies, that's a nightmare," Pitlick said.
Intentionality is important, she added, which is why Sprouts is a (mostly) electronics-free environment for kids and cellphone-free zone for instructors.
"They're inundated with that stuff all the time, so when they're with us it's just a time to relax," Pitlick explained. "My philosophy is kids have gotten away from being kids. Here the more that they engage and play, and the more things that are child-directed and project-based, the better off they are."
She mentioned the policy may bend a bit, once summer rolls around and school-age kids are at the center all day. Even now, BASP participants are allowed to use their computers for homework during downtime.
And staff members always have an iPad in each room, to stay connected with parents via the Tadpole software, which allows caregivers to record information and photos that can be sent via text or email.
Traditionally, Pitlick explained, an incident report may have been made in the morning and sat until a parent came to pick a child up. Sometimes, she noted, the same staff member who recorded the incident might not be there in the afternoon.
"Something always gets lost in communication, and parents may leave frustrated," she said. "With our software system, that never happens. An incident is typed into the system, and parents can access it all day long and email the teacher. We don't have to interrupt their day with a phone call."
As far as instruction goes, Sprouts uses Creative Curriculum, a districtwide tool for Clear Creek Amana (CCA) that provides resources for educators and follows a child's progress through third grade.
It will come in handy when Sprouts, along with the Little Clippers Child Development Center, in Tiffin, partner with CCA this fall to offer off-campus preschool for the growing district.
Obviously we're growing so fast and so much that accommodating the folks and families that want high quality preschool is not something we're able to accommodate given that we have to serve kindergarten and elementary students first," said CCA Child Care Director Ben Macumber.
The district is aided, however, by Iowa's Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children, which allocates funds to improve access to quality early childhood education.
"What happens is for the preschool eligible students (4 years old on or before Sept. 14), the state will give the district half of the student's supplemental funding. The district will get half of that per pupil funding and apply it to preschool," Macumber explained. "We get the per pupil allotment for those students then pass 95 percent of that money onto Little Clippers and Sprouts."
For the 2016-2017 school year, 346 schools participated in the program, which helps districts like CCA offer free morning preschool, with the option for parents to pay more for all-day programming.
Currently, 121 preschoolers are enrolled at CCA, but Macumber, who is also the principal at Amana Elementary, said the nearly 200 kindergarteners enrolled in the district attests to the fact some children are getting overlooked.
He added he's looking forward to the partnership with Sprouts and Little Clippers and that both centers must meet the same Iowa Quality Preschool Programming Standards the schools do.
"They're both great facilities, great locations, with great reputations," he said. "It might take a little while to get it off the ground. People want preschool in the building they'll go into kindergarten, but that's just not a reality we're able to provide for everyone. This is the next best thing."
Preschool registration for the 2017-2018 school year is now open and will be accepted through Feb. 20. Although a parent's first choice for the elementary schools won't be guaranteed, Macumber notedparents will definitely get their first choice for Sprouts or Little Clippers.
"A lot of people like to make the distinction that if they're here in a center that it's just babysitting," said Pitlick. "That's not the case anymore. It's just as much preschool for us as it is for the preschool in the education system."
Parents are picking up on that fact, too, she noted. She recounted a recent Facebook post praising Sprouts for its quality care.
"That's the kind of stuff that makes it worth it. We know we're doing something right."
Sprout Kids Academy
400 Elderberry St., Tiffin IA 52340