by Terry Rogers
On Friday, December 7, The Learning Center, better known as TLC, celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a small reception and presentation. Cheryl Clendaniel, Administrator for the Center, who has been at the Center for over 35 years, explained Mary Ann Hall and Dot McQuaid, who started the Center in 1978, established early childcare that was ahead of its time.
“Early on in the creation of TLC, Mary Ann created goals for the Center,” Clendaniel said. “These are goals that are now common among childcare centers. They include providing families a quality option for their child and allowing children to do what they do best which is play. She also wanted a center that would have play as the basis of their learning environment and to create a solid social and emotional foundation while also providing children with an understanding and appreciation of a loving God.”
TLC began in Calvary Church when Hall and McQuaid were looking for quality childcare for their own children. Both women had state jobs which they gave up to open the Center, taking a leap of faith that their idea would work. Initially, they were licensed for 42 children from ages 18 months to five years. On the first day, only three children arrived. By 1982, however, the Center expanded to include 35 school age children and, four years later, expanded to 50 school age children.
“They had started to outgrow the church,” Clendaniel explained. “When some of the older women decided they wanted to have circle meetings, the children would have to be moved from the fellowship hall. We would have to find space for 50 school aged children so two women could meet. Around 1992, Gary Cassidy, Mike Kersteter and other parents approached KSI about using part of the former TIE Trucking Building on Rehoboth Boulevard. They worked out a deal and rented the front half of the building while KSI continued to use the back half for a shitake mushroom project.
TLC continued to grow, adding several satellite sites for various age groups. Eventually, the Center realized that they would operate much better if all age groups were under the same roof. Today, the center serves 125 children from infant through school age. Over 25 percent of those enrolled had a parent who attended TLC and three current staff members came to the Center as children. The average staff retention is 10 years which is very unusual for a daycare setting. Over the years, the children have raised over $30,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital through a Trike-A-Thon held each year. Staff at TLC believe they were the first daycare center to have a float in the Milford Halloween Parade and the first children’s team at Relay for Life.
“We were accredited in 2000 by the National Childcare Center Association,” Clendaniel said. “We are a Delaware Stars Level 5 Center. We understand that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important and that children need responsive relationships that include affection, attention and stimulation. Conformity of care is critical and children learn through play and self-exploration. At this Center, we do very few worksheets to keep children busy. They learn through play and interaction. We know that early care is key to a child’s success. Teachers and principals at Morris tell us they can tell a child who comes from our center because they are prepared for learning when they start school.”
Like most early learning centers, TLC struggles with hiring and retaining qualified staff. This is mostly because the amount the average center can pay is fairly low and there are many steps to becoming qualified to manage young children. Balancing the budget can be difficult as funds provided for low-income families do not match the current costs of running a quality daycare center. Clendaniel explained that it is also difficult sometimes to meet the diverse needs of children.
“Families are different today than they were 40 years ago,” Clendaniel said. “There are many grandparents raising children, more single parents and the opioid epidemic is taking its toll on our children. As a center, we have to deal with many of these issues on a daily basis with extremely limited funds. There has been no increase in Point of Care funds, which are the funds provided by the state for low-income families, since 2015. We currently charge $167.50 per week for an infant, yet the state only pays us $116.25 for a low-income child as it is based on 65 percent of the 2015 market rate for daycare. That means for every low-income child we accept, we lose almost $50. This means we cannot accept as many low-income children as we would like.”
Even with the issues she faces as an early childhood education administrator, she would not change a thing. She loves watching the children thrive, grow and learn. She finds it equally rewarding to see those children grow up, become parents and bring their children to the Center for daycare. This indicates to her that the center is doing something right.
“I like to use a quote from Frederick Douglass to explain why I do what I do and why my staff does what they do,” Clendaniel said. “He said ‘It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men and women.’ This is absolutely true and it is our goal to build those strong children.”