EmBe summer child care program on hold following dissolution of agreement with Mitchell School District
Search for new home for long-running program ongoing, official says
MITCHELL — A summer child care program at EmBe is currently on hold following the dissolution of an agreement between EmBe and the Mitchell School District that allowed the non-profit organization use of district facilities.
The EmBe Mitchell School Age Care summer program, which provided child care and educational enrichment programs for children age 6 to 11, will not be offered during the summer of 2023 after decades of offering child care options for parents in the community, said Shalee Pitman, director of child care and school age care, told the Mitchell Republic recently.
“We won’t be providing summer care at all, as we were not able to secure an alternate facility that can house (that many) children,” Pitman said.
EmBe is a nonprofit organization that specializes in child development programs that facilitate growth and development, through tailored classrooms and educational toys, according to its website. It has locations in Mitchell and Sioux Falls in South Dakota.
Pitman said previous Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves, who left the district in January to take over as the new secretary of education for South Dakota, informed the organization prior to his departure that they would no longer have access to school district properties for its summer program.
EmBe, which is a continuation of the former local YWCA program, has hosted the summer care program for decades on Mitchell School District property. The program operated under an agreement where the district did not charge the organization to use its facilities, according to current interim district superintendent Joe Childs.
It was a long-running agreement that was a benefit to the community and helped address the ongoing need for local child care in the summer, he said.
“The Mitchell School District has provided facilities, custodial services, and utilities all in cooperation with EmBe for at least 30 years. And we’ve done so at no cost to them,” Childs said. “The district has done that to assist with child care and keep costs low for services.”
Childs said he believed discussions to discontinue the partnership had been taking place as far back as spring of 2022, citing “inattention” to certain factors, including security measures like doors being propped open and alleged damage to facilities over the years. It was a decision that came from an accumulation of concerns from several officials inside the district, he said.
“Just the overall concerns over the years from teachers and building administrators increased and has led to this unfortunate situation,” Childs said.
Graves declined to comment on the subject when reached by the Mitchell Republic, saying it would be inappropriate for a state official to comment on a local issue and referred questions to current Mitchell School District administrators.
The summer program had mostly utilized the Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School and L.B. Williams Elementary School buildings over the last few years, Pitman said. Those buildings were vital to the summer program as they were large enough to accommodate a large group of children and were already designed for educating youth.
The summer program was held daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and featured educational themes based on age, along with STEM and art-based activities. The children would also go on regular field trips to locations like the Dakota Discovery Museum, local parks and the swimming pool.
Pitman said the program had already been looking for another space to accommodate the needs of the program, which last year had a waiting list of about 30 students, when the news came that they would no longer have access to the buildings. That search was intensified after the agreement was dissolved, but no suitable substitute could be found.
Pitman said she informed parents of the change as soon as it became clear the summer program would have to be put on hold.
“I’d been looking for a little bit because the need has grown so much. We did run into a problem last summer where the space we had at the school wasn’t going to be enough to cater to the number of kids that needed care,” Pitman said. “So we were looking at other spaces to see if we could house some at the school, maybe some at a church, and have two different sites. And (Graves) informed us that (the facilities) would not be available for the summer. It didn’t give us a lot of time to secure anything, especially after we had been looking and exhausted the options around the Mitchell community.”
The loss of the program this summer has caused some frustration among parents who use the EmBe program. Those parents are now seeking alternative options for child care, with some looking toward private child care options that are already heavily booked.
“Most (child care providers) are full and have wait lists. I’m hearing from a lot of families that it is going to affect their work, or asking me where else can my child go? Unfortunately I don’t have an answer because everyone I reach out to doesn’t have the capacity,” Pitman said. “Desperate is a good word. They’re not really upset with anyone in particular, but it was already hard enough making sure they could afford child care and now they have no option for the summer.”
The change will also affect about a dozen employees with EmBe, many of whom are education students who filled the role of care providers for the program. Some of those employees have talked with Pitman about finding alternative work options or possibly transferring to another part of the EmBe organization, such as in Sioux Falls.
“We won’t be able to employ those students over the summer. We informed them and it is disappointing, as it really helped those students professionally and it offered a lot of flexibility as they were also able to have a summer experience for themselves,” Pitman said. “It was hard for them to be notified of that.”
Pitman said the organization is still looking into just how much the change will, if at all, impact other programs within EmBe, but she said the greatest impact will obviously be with the summer program itself.
We’re just looking for avenues to best serve our community and students in a way that’s positive. And EmBe wants the same thing.
“We’re continuing to assess how not having (the summer program) will impact us in the long run,” Pitman said.
Childs said the district is aware of the need for quality child care in Mitchell and he feels that the agreement could be re-established somewhere down the road with more discussion. He did not have any particular timeline for such but said that the district had itself looked for alternative sites for the program and had also been in contact with the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce on possible solutions.
The dissolution of the summer program does not mean the relationship between the Mitchell School District and EmBe is over. The district and EmBe still coordinate on other programs that are ongoing, and both understand the important role child care plays in a community like Mitchell, Childs said.
“This certainly could be rectified down the road. They still use our district facilities during the school year,” Childs said. “I’ve been in the interim superintendent role for a limited time, but I have had a handful of conversations with EmBe and we have a positive working relationship. I think this is an obstacle we can overcome in the future. We’re just looking for avenues to best serve our community and students in a way that’s positive. And EmBe wants the same thing.”
Pitman said the overall working relationship with the district has been and remains generally a positive one, and noted the district had been generous in allowing EmBe’s use of the facilities free of charge over the years, even deferring offers of additional payment for services such as custodians. That in itself helped EmBe maintain the program in the past.
“Having 120 kids in your school in the summer does do some wear and tear on your school. But they’ve been very gracious with us in that they did not accept (additional offers of payment) or didn’t feel it was necessary, which we really appreciated because that helped keep tuition costs for our parents even lower since we didn’t have to worry about those costs.”
She said they would continue to look for possible ways to resolve the issue, either with the district or another future partner. She said EmBe has the will and the staffing to get it done, they just need a location.
“We are more than willing to continue doing the program, it’s just the facility issue and not having the space to accommodate that,” Pitman said. “But we are still more than open to running the program.”
Pitman encouraged parents affected by the loss of the summer program to contact the EmBe offices with any concerns or questions they may have. EmBe can be reached at 605-996-4311.