Just a little more than a year after Hays Unified School District 489 purchased a complex of former medical offices, its four buildings are full of children making paper jack-o'-lanterns and helping their teachers make pumpkin pancakes for their morning snack.
The district and Early Childhood Connections gave the public its first look at the completed USD 489 Early Childhood Complex on Thursday during a morning ribbon-cutting with the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and an afternoon open house.
Although USD 489 governs the grant monies for the program, one of the people involved in the new facility’s completion stressed it’s not just for the school district.
“This is for the whole community. There’s kids that come out of here that go to the private school, public school or homeschool,” said John Thissen, who retired as USD 489 superintendent in July and who worked with ECC executive director Donna Hudson-Hamilton in bringing it about.
Now living in Herington, Thissen attended Thursday morning’s ribbon-cutting and got a tour with Hudson-Hamilton and others afterwards. He was all smiles as he viewed the classrooms and was greeted by teachers and other staff.
The four-building complex — named just Monday by the school board — houses ECC and its programs for children from birth to age 5 including Parents as Teachers, Early Head Start and Head Start.
ECC also has classrooms in Russell and Ellis and provides home-based services such as developmental screenings in Ellis, Rush, Russell and Rooks counties.
The new facility also houses USD 489’s tuition-based preschool and the West Central Special Education Cooperative’s early childhood classroom.
ECC serves about 175 children throughout its programs, including 40 in Parents as Teachers, 95 in Early Head Start, up to 30 in USD 489’s preschool and about 15 in the special education classroom, with a staff of about 65 to oversee it all, Hudson-Hamilton said.
“It’s more than just education. We look at the entire family. We also provide at least two-thirds of their nutritional requirements when they’re here. We make sure they have a dentist and a medical home … We really do look at the whole child, not just the education component,” she said.
It’s the first time all of the programs have been based in one location since USD 489 received its first Head Start grant in 1990.
“Parents have just one place that they can just drop off. They don’t need drive to Munjor. It’s been really nice for the parents and it’s also been nice for the staff,” she said during the ribbon-cutting.
In the beginning, classrooms were located wherever there was space in the elementary schools, and often had to move as the schools’ space needs changed.
When Washington Elementary was closed as a learning center in 2015, ECC moved there the following year. But the building, built more than 90 years ago, still posed problems such as accessibility and its plumbing. Hudson-Hamilton said there were days when students had to wear coats all day because of inadequate heating.
At the beginning of October last year, the school board approved the purchase of the Oak Park Medical Complex for $2 million after learning ECC had been awarded a $1.4 million federal grant for renovation funds.
The talks to purchase the property and obtain the grant had begun long before, said John Thissen, who was then superintendent of USD 489. Board members Sophia Rose-Young and Lance Bickle first approached him with the idea, Thissen said.
“It was a year of executive sessions to get it to come to fruition,” said Hays Chamber executive director Sarah Wasinger, who was then the school board clerk and Thissen’s assistant.
And yet, once the purchase and renovation got underway, it was a whirlwind, Hudson-Hamilton said, especially as summer wound down into the new school year.
“We moved in and had children within two weeks,” she said. “They worked their tails off to get moved. Preschoolers have a lot of stuff.”
The year-round infant-toddler program, which had been located at the former Munjor Elementary School, was the last to move early this month.
The facility includes separate playgrounds for different groups of children, and also has an activity room that includes climbing walls and a sensory room for those who need more sensory input.
“They can come in here, they can swing, they can jump on the crash pad. We have some activities in there to do. It’s just a place for them to kind of debrief, gather themselves to come back to class. It’s going to be more of a preventative use, where they’ll have scheduled times to come in,” she said.