Oaktree Academy hopes to fill daycare gap

May 9, 2014
John Wilson, left, Lisa Cooper and Lynn Russell

John Wilson, left, Lisa Cooper and Lynn Russell

By Kate Krieger. MCP Correspondent.

LUDINGTON – Mason County will soon be home to a new academy, providing daycare and pre-school services to area children, ages newborn to 13. With a decline in daycare providers in the Mason County area due to new licensing regulations and the need for care going up, the Pennies from Heaven Foundation, founded by John and Anita Wilson, along with collaborating area resources, Oaktree Academy will be a non-profit, charitable organization, promoting whole family success through educational and daycare services.

One of the programs the academy will provide is tuition-free, four-year-old pre-school programming through the Great Start Readiness Program, which will be the first time the county has this programming provided in a private, outside of a public education setting.

It will also provide 3-year-old pre-school, before and after school programming, transportation coordination, food services, on site developmental screenings and professional development for staff and outside caregivers.

The academy will offer first and second shift daycare, running from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. It will also be open during breaks from school and throughout the summer months.

Currently, the proposed location for Oaktree Academy is the old South Hamlin Elementary School, located on the corner of Lincoln and Decker roads in Hamlin Township. The Ludington Area Schools Board of Education has received the initial proposal for the academy to lease the building and if approved, the proposal will go in front of the full board in about two weeks. Because of the condition of Journey High School, the alternative school for Mason County, the school board is also looking into possibly using South Hamlin as its new home.

“We’ll have to continue to look at possible locations if South Hamlin doesn’t work out,” said Lisa Cooper, one of the Oaktree Academy project leaders. The academy wouldn’t need all of the classrooms at South Hamlin, but there would not be enough room combining both Oaktree and Journey under one roof. Cooper stated that the academy would probably need about five rooms to start and it would all depend on age.

“There would be about 12-18 children per class,” Cooper said. “It’s all based on enrollment and the level of staffing we can achieve.”

About 20-30 new full and part time jobs will be filled at the academy including daycare providers, teachers, classroom aides, kitchen and nutritional staff, administration and a family advocate. Not only will the academy’s providers be given quality professional development throughout the year, outside providers will also be given the opportunity for professional development.

“We will be able to provide 16 hours of professional development for providers a year,” John Wilson said. “We will provide consistent and reliable training happening for them.”

Along with training, Oaktree will also help area providers with licensing issues, networking, finding resources and career development, so every daycare and the children served there in the area can be successful.

“It’s not about us and them,” Wilson said. “We want to look at how we can all work together and succeed to help all children who are entering school.”

Another hope for Oaktree Academy is to provide comparable daycare prices to the other daycares that are present in the area. The group of project leaders discussed that there are many struggles that area families face when trying to receive quality daycare and pre-school programming in the Mason County area.

Many families deal with living directly above the poverty line and struggle going to work, paying for daycare and being able to survive on the income they have left. Oaktree Academy will try to offer services that are affordable to families dealing with these issues and look to the community to help assist in establishing even more resources, whether through their own academy or outside its doors within the community itself.

“We want to help those ‘gap kids’ so the families can work,” Cooper said. “A lot of times these families run out of options very quickly.”

Oaktree Academy will also offer a family advocate, working with families to provide community resources, early childhood developmental screening, referral services and work with families to increase parental involvement and leadership within the community.

Lynn Russell, executive director of United Way of Mason County, another project leader stated that a lot of the details are still being worked out, but they are very eager in getting this started for the 2014-15 school year.

“A lot of the details haven’t totally been worked out,” she said. “We are working on forming a formal board of directors.”

Looking at the big picture, Wilson and the group of project directors are really taking into account what the community needs are currently and how those needs will be met throughout the future.

“We really are looking at the community’s greatest needs,” Wilson said. “We found that the next greatest need was daycare. Our focus is to help facilitate affordable and available daycare across the county.”

Wilson, along with the others really hope to see Oaktree offer great quality services to the children and families of the community, whether or not the academy itself is providing those services.

“Whether the services are through Oaktree Academy or through anywhere else, it doesn’t matter to us,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of providers out there and it isn’t getting any easier. There’s just a massive need.”

If all goes as plans and South Hamlin works out to house Oaktree Academy, the process will be quickly moving and positions will soon be posted, looking for quality employees. Conversations are being held between many different area resources who are excited about the academy being establish and Cooper stated that she has people contacting her regularly about assisting with the project.

“We’d really like to get right to work,” she said. “Our hope is for the 14-15 school year. September 2 would be great.”

Wilson agreed and knows that the project will need to move very quickly once a location is established to open this fall, but he seems very optimistic that if everything falls into place, Oaktree will be up and running sooner rather than later.

“We really hope we can help deliver more kids who are ready for kindergarten,” he said. “We are ready to roll up our sleeves and work together to get things done.”

Cooper said the academy is going to start small and look at its needs as it goes. Outside of the Pennies from Heaven foundation, federal and state dollars will also play a part in funding Oaktree and additional funds will be looked at as needed.

“There’s just such a great need for additional childcare in the community,” Cooper said. “We really want to hear the needs and help connect families to resources.”

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