Post-Covid, Kent State’s Child Development Center is financially secure and enrollment rising

Photo by Sigmund

Even though pandemic mandates are long gone, Kent State’s Child Development Center is still struggling to recover its previous enrollment numbers, but parents and administrators say the center has weathered the storm.

In July 2020, as Covid-19 shut down the Kent campus, hundreds of parents and supporters of the Child Development Center sent a worried letter to university administrators asking them to guarantee the future of the center.

But CDC leadership assured them the program was funded, provided parents continued to send their children.

Today the CDC’s annual budget is around $715,000 per year, Director Pam Hutchins said. Most of that goes to salaries and benefits. The CDC normally serves up to 150 children but is currently only at about 80% capacity. But Hutchins says she “anticipate[s] pre-Covid numbers for 2023-2024 school year.”

Hutchins said that at the beginning of the pandemic the school was mandated to reduce the number of children in each classroom. Those mandates are gone, but class numbers are still thin. Kindergarten and preschool classes normally have 16 to 18 children. Right now they only have 15 to 16 children in each class.

Staffing also became a problem when Kent State shut down in-person classes, reducing the number of potential student teachers. According to Hutchins, the CDC is currently fully staffed with lead teachers, but is still short on assistant and substitute teachers.

The Child Development Center is a school for children 18 months of age through kindergarten. Although located on the university campus, the CDC is open to everybody, not just families affiliated with the university. It uses the International Baccalaureate curriculum, hosts an annual community festival and offers scholarships to reduce tuition.

“People think it’s just a daycare for Kent State employees,” says Cami Barber, a CDC volunteer whose three children attended school there. “But it’s so much more than that.”

Hutchins said children are continually challenged to do things they haven’t done before. For example, a teacher may ask a child to speak in front of a large group of other children.

The school also uses a technique called “modeling,” in which older children set an example and guide younger children through various activities.

A typical classroom may have up to three teachers, a mix of professionals and student-teachers from Kent State. There is even an observation booth where parents can secretly watch how their children interact in a classroom environment with other kids. The booth is also used by researchers.

Aside from the classroom, children spend much of the day outside. There are not many artificial toys in the area; instead, the CDC prefers natural features such as mud pits and gardens. Children are encouraged to take risks and solve problems here, too. For example, a teacher might ask children to climb a little bit higher than they did the day before. 

Barber said many families consider the CDC to be a staple of their diverse community. Every year the school hosts a community festival.

“One year, a family from China did calligraphy and showed everyone traditional games, cooking and language,” she said. “Last year’s [festival] was potluck. With our international community, it was delicious and we would sample things from all over.”

This kind of environment can have a lasting impact on a child. Barber’s son Sam met a German boy named Jan when they were 5 years old. Although they are 11 now and Jan has moved back to Germany, the two boys still play Minecraft together online every weekend.

“The CDC has been an instrumental piece of my family’s life,” says Jen Yensel, a mental health counselor whose four children all attended. “The teachers and staff nurtured every child like their own. … There is plenty of research on the importance of early childhood education, nurturance and community. The CDC embraces these variables.”

The CDC has always taken pride in being open to everybody. They offer the Robin McManus Scholarship to reduce tuition for any families whose children may not otherwise be able to attend. A benefit fundraiser is held annually to support the scholarship.

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Mike Ray is a freelance journalist and researcher, and a contributor to The Portager.