FREDERICKTOWN — It's just after 6 o'clock on a misty, 60-degree Thursday morning in Fredericktown, and Ava Moore is full of energy.
The 6-year-old incoming first grader at Fredericktown Elementary School opens the door with her father's help and bounds into the cozy room on the west end of the district's administrative building.
She knows right where to go: the toy box on the far wall, sitting beside the TV and the bright green bean bags.
She immediately pulls out "Yeti In My Spaghetti," a concentration-building game involving long plastic noodles and a miniature monster, and gets to work. An adult supervisor approaches her and asks if she's excited to go back to school today, after experiencing her first day in elementary the day prior.
She smiles wide, nods vigorously, and continues playing.
Moore was one of six Fredericktown students to attend the district's latchkey program that morning – and one of roughly 40 total to attend the program during the first week of school this August, according to program director Pam Cline.
- Grant Pepper, Staff Reporter
Her reason for being there is not at all uncommon – and it illustrates the impact Fredericktown's latchkey program has on the lives of parents and families within the school district.
Ava's father, Derek, works as a die-cast operator at FT Precision in Fredericktown. His shift begins at 6:30 a.m., which means he can't wait to drop Ava off for school at 8:45 a.m., when the first bell rings.
If not for Fredericktown's latchkey program, Derek would need to find another source of child care for his daughter between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., which he admits wouldn't be easy.
"This is a great program," Derek said Aug. 18, watching as Ava burst into the room. "It saves me, it really does."
By utilizing the latchkey program, Derek can drop Ava off, go to work, and pick her up after school, as his shift ends at 3 p.m. He said he feels comfortable sending Ava to the program because many of the staff members already work within the district.
The program is also located on school grounds, which means Derek doesn't have to worry about finding transportation from another child care location to the school. All Ava has to do is get on the bus with her peers (while supervised by latchkey staff) and ride half a mile to the door.
"It works perfect," Derek said. "This program is great. It is great for my life and her life."
The secret sauce? District buy-in
The Moore family is one of many to utilize Fredericktown's latchkey program over the last two-and-a-half decades.
Had they lived elsewhere in Knox County, however, this option would not have been at their disposal: Fredericktown is the county's only public school district with a latchkey program.
The Area Development Foundation, which recently conducted a study that confirmed Knox County's child care shortage and is now working with other local partners to help address it, discovered this late last year, vice president Sam Filkins said.
The agency believes latchkey programs are a part of the solution in Knox County – a way to increase licensed child care spots, which are sorely needed, according to the study.
So, what would it take for Knox County's other four public districts to replicate Fredericktown's system?
Organizers, parents and district officials believe district buy-in is crucial.
"Everybody has to be on-board," latchkey staff member Pam Walters said. "There are so many different pieces of the puzzle that have to come together."
Fredericktown's latchkey program is technically independent from the school district; the program is labeled as a "state-licensed, non-profit corporation administered by the Fredericktown school system" in its mission statement.
This means it is responsible for obtaining and renewing its own child care license. The program pays for its own staffing, supplies and administrative costs (such as training and license renewal costs) through enrollment fees.
But the district also plays an instrumental role in the program's day-to-day operations.
Fredericktown Local Schools has always donated space to the program, according to directors past and present. The district donated space in the old elementary school on High Street, then in the new elementary school on Stadium Drive, and now in the administrative building on Columbus Road.
Fredericktown's latchkey program has its own room on the west side of the building — parents enter through the side door and drop their children off at Room 118.
The program is also allowed to use other areas of the building, including the cafeteria, gym and hallways, for activities, Cline said. The playground and other outdoor areas on campus are also available before and after school.
The district foots the bill for all utility costs associated with the latchkey program's use of its space. It also allows the program to use office supplies, such as the printer and copier, free of charge.
Beginning this year, the district makes one final bus stop on the way to the elementary school – in the parking lot of the administrative building, so the latchkey students can hop on and get to class. That same bus drops students off at the program after school as well.
"There are certain expenses that get absorbed by the school," Cline said.
Fredericktown's district treasurer also handles the latchkey program's finances.
"I do billing and I collect from the parents," Cline explained. "But I put it in a bank account under the school’s name, and they issue our payroll checks and pay the bills."
The district's elementary principal hires the latchkey program director, Cline said, and all staff hires are approved by the Fredericktown Board of Education. Cline said she works closely with the principal, as well as other district teachers and administrators, to shape the program in a way that benefits all involved.
"I run the program and do things here that I need to do, but either as a courtesy or a requirement, I run everything through our principal, so we’re all on-board," Cline said.
This close working relationship with Fredericktown's elementary teachers allows for flexibility, which ultimately benefits the families of Fredericktown students.
"They can call the school secretary or let their child’s teacher know that they want them sent to latchkey in the afternoon," Cline said.
"Say they’re at the grocery store, and it’s running longer than they thought, they can call and say, 'Send them to latchkey.' Or, if they just want a day without the kids, they can use it for that as well.”
The above scenario highlights why flexibility is a key feature of Fredericktown's latchkey program. Cline, who got involved four years ago after volunteering with the district and serving as its PTO president, said parents are not required to register their children for latchkey sessions beforehand.
This is by design.
"Some (parents), they just use it as-needed," said Walters, who also works during the day as a teacher's aide at Fredericktown Elementary School.
"They have family or they have a babysitter and then a lot of times a babysitter ... their own kids are sick and they cancel, then they’re like, 'Oh gosh, what am I gonna do?' So they have this as backup.
"I think that’s good. Because some of them are like shared parenting, so mom has them, they stay home; dad has them, they come here, depending on their work schedules," she continued. "So I think the flexibility of it is really good for the parents."
This flexibility – while convenient for parents – does make it difficult to plan for sessions ahead of time, Cline acknowledged. She typically errs on the side of caution when it comes to staffing, just in case.
"We don't know who we're gonna get in the morning, when they drop them off here," Cline said. "I keep the staffing high."
Robin McClay, a longtime first grade teacher at Fredericktown, ran the latchkey program from 1997-2003. Even back then, she recalled the district being an integral partner in the effort.
"The school is technically a separate entity, but the school is beyond cooperative – they’ve always been cooperative – with the program, making sure kids get where they need to be and making sure it all goes smoothly," McClay said.
Why has the district committed to the program in this way? Superintendent Gary Chapman (and former high school principal from 2005-2009) said the answer is simple.
"We want to partner with them because it’s such a great service to our families and to our kids here in the Fredericktown community," said Chapman, whose office is just two halls down from the latchkey program's new room.
"And when you can provide that extra support in child care – before school and after school – that’s helping our families. It’s helping our families take care of our kids.
"So that’s why, I don’t know if I want to call it a luxury, but it is truly a blessing to have that type of support here," he continued. "And (the fact that) we can house it in this facility, and (allow the) district to utilize this facility – not only for preschool, but for latchkey as well – I think that just says a lot about the Fredericktown community and how they want to take care of their families and kids."
Chapman views Fredericktown's latchkey program as an extension of its school day. By involving K-5 students in additional, district-guided activities on-campus before and after school, he believes Fredericktown's latchkey program strengthens the bond between the school district and its youngest families.
This allows for a richer, more fulfilling academic experience for Fredericktown's students long-term, as they progress through the school system, Chapman said.
"It’s a positive, that relationship – before school, during school, after school. As much as we can keep our kids engaged through the school, providing services, whatever it may be, that just creates for such a richer experience as you’re going through Fredericktown schools," Chapman said.
"That’s what it’s all about, is what type of experience are we providing for our kids?" he continued. "And taking care of them not only academically, (but also) socially and emotionally … that’s what’s so neat about this. Because they’re here, depending on when they’re dropped off, at 6 a.m. And then they go to school, and then they would leave maybe at 6:30 p.m.
"What I’ve found so far, what I’m so impressed (by), is how much our staff, especially after the first day, they love our kids and they take pride in their work. And that’s the environment we want to create and continue to foster and to grow and nurture."
One part of the solution
Cline is the first to acknowledge that not every school district will be able to support a latchkey program.
A district would have to be willing and able to give up classroom space, she explained. It would also have to be willing to cover program expenses – including staff training, work stipends and educational supplies – early on, as the program would likely begin with no money in the bank (remember, Fredericktown's program runs almost entirely on enrollment fees).
A district would have to be willing to carve out time to dedicate to the program. Its treasurer, secretary and elementary principal – as well as dozens of other latchkey-adjacent staff members – would need to commit to a full partnership with the program in order to make it work.
"You really need that to be successful," Cline said.
And representatives with the Area Development Foundation acknowledge that latchkey programs alone won't solve Knox County's child care shortage.
Filkins, the ADF's vice president, said this is just one piece of the puzzle. The agency is also exploring ways to increase the number of licensed spots available through private centers and in-home care.
"We need to create 1,822 new child care spots," he said in May, after the ADF published its survey results. "We only have 986. We need that, plus double."
But the agency believes latchkey programs are a part of the solution. Representatives are currently examining Fredericktown's program, as well as others nearby, to see if certain elements might be replicable elsewhere.
"We’re looking at those models and trying to figure out the good parts, the bad parts," Julia Greenich-Suggs, the ADF's economic development coordinator, said in a recent interview. "And then (we're asking), 'Could they be replicated in the other elementary schools (in Knox County)?'"
Cline believes other districts should at least consider the idea.
Why? Because of the impact she sees firsthand, every single day.
Take Jenny Grose, a mother of two who works as paraprofessional at Fredericktown Middle School. She arrived around 7 a.m. on that misty Thursday morning in mid-August to drop off her daughter, Skyler.
Skyler is a first grader at Fredericktown Elementary School. Jenny said she sends her daughter to the latchkey program because she starts work earlier than Skyler starts school (the middle school starts at 7:45 a.m.).
If not for the latchkey program, Jenny said she wouldn't be able to have her current job.
"I wouldn’t be able to take a position at the middle school," she said. "It wouldn’t be possible."
The program also provides a creative outlet – and additional, part-time pay – for district staff members.
Walters, now in her second year with the program, said she joined for these reasons. And the experience has been rewarding so far.
"It’s fun. The kids are fun," she said with a smile. "And you can play with them, sit on the floor and do stuff with them, and not have to be, 'Do your work, do your work.'
"The rest of the day, I’m kind of (doing that). This is more fun."
Walters is one of dozens of staff members the latchkey program has seen over the years. Cline and McClay both said it's people like this – who have a passion for child care and education, and who genuinely love what they do – that make the program what it is today.
"Obviously, they’re not here for the money. I really think it’s important to them, to do something with kids," Cline said. "All of the people that work with me work with kids at the school, too. So, I think it’s just an extension of that."
McClay has seen Fredericktown's latchkey program develop over the last 25-plus years. She's seen the way it's benefited not only students and their families, but also the school district itself.
She believes the program has helped make Fredericktown a stronger, more connected community.
"I’m thrilled Fredericktown still has it. I’m glad the churches and the school worked together when they did, to get it up and going," McClay said.
"It was a huge blessing personally for my family, and I just know it’s been a good thing for many families through the years."