Community in partnership with First Presbyterian.
Parents, Highlands business owners and community leaders all describe the Highlands Community Child Development Center (HCCDC) as vital to the success of the community. Frances Oakley, president of the HCCDC Board of Directors goes even further.
“I feel the center is the anchor on one end of the town with the hospital on the other. What the center does for Highlands is incredible. We have provided care for the children of parents that are employees of 85 different businesses in Highlands.”
Jennifer Creswell’s seven-year-old son William, attended HCCDC from the time he was six months old until he entered kindergarten at Highlands School.
“It’s a wonderful facility.” said Creswell. “I don’t know what I would have done without it. To live in Franklin and work in Highlands would not have been possible. Pat Hedden [HCCDC Programs Director] is amazing. William started when the Center was in the basement of the [First Presbyterian] Church. He knew how to use the computer before he started to kindergarten at the Highlands School. He is in the second grade now, and the kids he was with at HCCDC are still his classmates and good friends.”
Pat Hedden is considered amazing by more than just one person—in fact, everyone who knows her feels that way. After moving to Highlands and working a brief stint at one of the banks, the former Pickens, S.C., early childhood educator became the center’s director in June of 1988. She supervises a staff of 14 people that includes five teachers and five teacher assistants. The facility is licensed to serve 66 children from two months to five years old.
The facility is open from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., five days a week, 12 months a year. Parents bring in their children according to their work schedules, some between 7:30 and 8 a.m., with those who work in retail coming in just before 10 a.m. Some pick up at 4 p.m.; others at 5:30 p.m. Juggling employee schedules to accommodate the variations is a big part of Hedden’s daily routine.
“Parents are paying for our services,” she says. “We need to accommodate them. If the schools are closed because of the weather, we might close also. But even if the schools are closed, if the businesses are open, we open.”
Hedden believes in communication.
“One advantage that a center in a small community has over one in a large city is that we really know the parents,” she said. She encourages parents to come in during the day if they can and get to know the teachers, check on their children, etc.
Sherry Sims, pharmacist and owner of Highlands Pharmacy, can’t say enough good things about HCCDC. Her son was enrolled at the First Presbyterian Day Care Center years ago, and she has an employee, April Burrell, who has a child currently enrolled at HCCDC.
“HCCDC is absolutely vital to the success of the businesses in this town,” said Sims. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have it.”
Sims’s son was in the same “Day Care Center graduating class” with Hedden’s son.
“There were 15 kids in that class, and 12 of them were boys,” said Hedden. “My goodness, what a group. But you know, they all entered the Highlands School together, and they’ve remained good friends since. They’re in the 11th grade now, and they still hang out together.”
HCCDC is a three-star rated child care center licensed and inspected by the State of North Carolina. The license limits the number of children by age group and the number in each classroom. The state also sets minimums for the teacher:child ratio by age group. The state conducts Environmental License (Star) Rating inspections every three years.
Hedden says that while HCCDC performs many functions listed under both the four- and five-star rating requirements, the center has opted to maintain the three-star rating because of costs. “To achieve four- or five-star ratings would necessitate our reducing the number of children we serve and at the same time increasing the staff. Our costs would go out of sight.”
HCCDC has a fully equipped kitchen, a full time nutritionist and serves two meals a day, breakfast and lunch.
The State, Macon County Social Services and the Macon County Health Department conduct unannounced inspections several times a year. The health department and the school system provide medical, vision and hearing exams for the children at HCCDC. Children needing developmental assistance receive professional therapy and guidance on site.
HCCDC operates a 15-camera closed circuit TV system for security, child safety and classroom records to assist the teachers and the parents. A keypad entry system controls access to the facility. Each parent has his or her own individual entry code. The staff can change these codes quickly should there be a need to prohibit anyone from access to the children.
HCCDC began operations in 1979 as The First Presbyterian Church Day Care Center and was housed in the church building. Without asking for community financial support, members of First Presbyterian Church decided the Child Care Center would be their largest and most important local mission as a gift to the families of the Highlands community.
When Hunter Coleman, now retired, arrived in 1997 to become minister of Highlands First Presbyterian Church, he saw a need to include the community in partnership with the center. At that time, the church was preparing to launch an extensive building campaign. The Session (Presbyterian Church governing board) made the building of the new, $1.8 million facility for the center phase 2 of the campaign. Successfully completed and paid for, the Highlands Community Child Development Center opened on Valentine’s Day 2005.
Located on Church Street, across the street from the First Presbyterian Church, the facility sits on land still owned by the church. HCCDC is a non-profit now owned by its Board of Directors. It leases the land from the church at $100 per year and can continue to do so as long as it is in operation.
“By making the community a partner in the center, we could significantly increase our budget, allowing us to pay the wonderful staff and provide them benefits more in line with what they deserve,” Coleman said. “It is a vibrant operation, vital to the community, and is still the number one local outreach mission of the church.”
Bob Wright, who was then treasurer of First Presbyterian Church, was also instrumental in the development of HCCDC. “Back then, we had two sets of books — one for the church and one for the day care center.” After the completion of the facility, Wright became, and continues to be, the treasurer of the HCCDC Board. The HCCDC does employ a parttime CPA who manages the facility’s payroll among other things. Wright, a volunteer, puts in three or four hours every day at the HCCDC, managing the facility’s finances.
“Macon County has identified the shortage of preschool child care availability as a significant problem both for working parents and for economic development,” said Wright. “The most critical shortage of child care slots is for infants and toddlers. Most providers, other than Macon Program for Progress, elect to start child care at age three because the state regulations make the 3-5 year old group better able to support the provider’s cost.
“Providing child care to infants and toddlers is very difficult to achieve a break-even cost of operations. One reason for this is that the state sets child care ‘market rates’ that are significantly lower than the actual costs for a licensed, quality care provider,” Wright continued. “Although the North Carolina Child Care Subsidy Program provides financial support for families that are income-qualified, the subsidy rates are based on the State Market Rates, and the business is a significant challenge.
“HCCDC’s operating budget for 2010 was $534,000. Tuition and state subsidy programs provided approximately 52 percent of operating income and the balance is raised in private donations and grants. Of course, HCCDC’s staff of 15 provides a direct payroll support to the local economy.”
Families qualify for financial assistance based on total family income. Macon County Social Services conducts the evaluations, and both parents must be employed to qualify. At HCCDC, 34 (59 percent of enrollment) qualify for the North Carolina Child Care Subsidy and 31 (53 percent of enrollment) qualify for the North Carolina Food Program. One child, with both parents having lost their jobs, receives a donor scholarship.
Single parent families make up 40 percent of the enrollment (23 children); grandparents are raising two children. Eight Hispanic children are enrolled and two mixed race children. Five special needs children (vision, hearing, speech) are enrolled; two children have forms of Autism and are receiving special therapy attention. HCCDC currently serves 58 children, 30 boys and 28 girls.
More than just day care
HCCDC teachers work with Highlands School to ensure that children are properly prepared when they become of school age. HCCDC requires that its teachers be certified, or at least be in the process of working toward that goal. To facilitate that requirement, HCCDC pays the cost of course work necessary for staff members. Moreover, the facility provides computers for the teachers to take online courses and they do their homework while in the building.
Like every other organization, HCCDC’s biggest concern today is the economic situation.
“I recently read where the governor is proposing a $9.4-million cut in early childhood education. That could have a major impact on us. It’s scary,” said Oakley.
Based on its past track record and with its partnership with the community of Highlands, HCCDC will overcome whatever obstacles it faces.