Local pre-k programs share in $33M grant

Melanie Zinn, owner of Horizon Early Learning Program, reads a picture book to children under her care.

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BRATTLEBORO — An existing child care program has stepped up to try and ensure the Brattleboro Retreat’s Mulberry Bush Independent School stays put after plans to cut programming were announced.

With support from the Retreat and the Child Care Counts Coalition, Horizon Early Learning Program LLC has agreed to explore taking over as the business entity operating Mulberry Bush. The goal is to have “a seamless transition” where families and employed staff will remain at Mulberry Bush, which will continue under the same name.

“We are excited to let you know that we are in the process of exploring a solution that will allow the Mulberry Bush to remain housed at the Brattleboro Retreat and continue to serve our community as an early learning program,” Horizon owner Mel Zinn, Mulberry Bush Director Tori Kelliher, coalition founder Chloe Learey and Retreat CEO Louis Josephson said in a letter sent Friday to the Mulberry Bush community. “We understand that in order for our community to thrive it is essential to maintain quality child care spots. We are hopeful that the partnership we have created can achieve this with Mulberry Bush.”

Last month, the Retreat announced plans to close Mulberry Bush on Dec. 23. Families enrolled in the program expressed shock and disappointment about the news coming as the community deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

The closure had to do with restructuring due to financial issues experienced by the Retreat, a mental health and addictions hospital which also is the biggest employer in Windham County. Several out-patient addiction treatment programs also are set to be eliminated.

Josephson reached out to Learey about potential solutions to the child care program shutting down. She said about 35 families would be affected by the closure of Mulberry Bush.

Learey worried how that might lead to parents leaving the workforce and the community losing qualified child care staff.

“The bottom line is we can’t afford to lose capacity,” she said. “I felt like there’s something we’ve got to be able to do to provide a viable, ongoing program. Just because the Retreat can’t run it doesn’t mean nobody can.”

Learey, who also serves as executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, initiated the coalition in 2017 with a mission to maintain child care slots in the region and add more. The group helped restart the early childhood program at the Windham Regional Career Center and “is honored to be part of this process as well,” the letter states.

Horizon currently serves about 31 families in a five-star child care program out of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro. Zinn is a licensed teacher and business manager, who received the Vermont Early Educator of the Year award about two years ago.

“Things are going optimistically well and I should have the legal contract tomorrow,” she said about the Mulberry Bush project in an interview Tuesday.

Zinn started her business as a home child care program in Vernon about eight years ago. It later grew to be a licensed home child care program then a registered center in Brattleboro.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Zinn stepped out of the role of director. She’s owner and manager.

“A lot of my work has been in advocacy, quality early education, increasing capacity in the community,” she said. “I really like the idea of surrounding myself with a team.”

Zinn described feeling heartbroken when she first heard about Mulberry Bush closing. She said she knew Kelliher had built the program up and treated the community so well.

“We don’t really watch children — we educate them and nurture them and we create a community with our families,” Zinn said. “We strengthen families through our work. I hated to see that fall apart.”

Numbers were crunched to see how the program could continue operating and shift the business entity, Zinn said. She wants to keep the Mulberry Bush name and sustain the slots.

“We’re already living during this pandemic — to have another unknown?” she said. “Of course it will change course as things do with a new director and things like that, new teachers, because not all staff is going to stay.”

It is unclear how many teachers will stay. Zinn said she needs to draw up contracts to offer current staff members jobs.

Her plan is to meet with families Thursday. She anticipates most of those who have stayed will continue sending their children through the transition.

Josephson “has been great to work with,” Zinn said. “The Retreat is assisting in making sure this happens as smoothly and quickly as possible with their support.”

Zinn said she loves the work of the coalition. She shares concerns about parents having to leave their jobs if they don’t have child care.

“People’s livelihoods are at stake,” she said. “If they don’t have child care, they can’t work.”

Zinn said she’s “really appreciative of the out-of-the-box thinking this team has done. There’s no I in this team. It’s not just my thing.”

The hope is for the transition to happen by Jan. 1 at the latest and for the program to be as consistent as possible, according to the letter.

“We understand this is a stressful, challenging situation that is not without its share of unknowns,” the letter states. “At the same time we are hopeful about our ability to meet and overcome whatever issues may lie ahead.”

The authors thanked the families for their “patience with and participation in this process.”

“Like many Mulberry parents, we are crossing our fingers that these efforts will result in a program that will look very much like the Mulberry Bush Independent School that we have grown to love and depend upon,” said Brattleboro Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel, one of several parents who publicly raised concerns when the closure was announced. “I’d like to extend an extra word of appreciation for the unsung individual families that have been working so hard in the background on this effort as well — their early advocacy was key for this to have come so far already.”


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