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BusinessWest, by Kathleen Mitchell

A Study In Evolution

Square One Continues to Expand Its Role as Economic Development Engine
July 05, 2010

Their beginnings were humble.

In 1883, the organization known today as Square One was created as a babysitting program for mothers in the work-training program at Springfield Industrial Laundry Service. “They had a program to train women who were interested in becoming laundresses for wealthy families,” said Kimberley Lee, vice president of Advancment at Square One.

“At the time, many families were emigrating to this country, and the young women began having babies out of wedlock,” she explained. “The owners were exasperated, as their revenue went down because the women weren't able to come to work. So, Harriet Merriam, who was the daughter of Charles Merriam from Webster Dictionary, tapped into her social and financial connections and created Springfield Day Nursery. The laundry service wouldn't have survived without it.”

Although the day care program was created for the laundry, word spread quickly, and within months, other working mothers were using the facility.

“Things haven't changed much since then in terms of the need for child care for working families,” said Lee. “Here we were in 1885, and here we are now with the same issue of women needing access to quality, affordable early education and child care.”

But the organization has evolved from its origins, and 127 years later, Square One, which changed its name two years ago from Springfield Day Nursery to better reflect the depth and breadth of its services, continues to grow. It serves 1,100 children a day via infant, toddler, and preschool programs, as well as myriad other initiatives that care for young people before and after school and during vacations. “Whenever kids are out of school, we are there to provide care,” Lee said.

Square One has five centers throughout the Greater Springfield area along with 55 home daycare providers, who earn $2.2 million annually.

On June 24, the non-profit organization received a $1.3 million grant from MassDevelopment's Gateway City Loan Program and Community Service Fund to renovate its King Street site in Springfield and build 10 new classrooms. The grant will enable the facility to almost double in size and care for 187 children at the center, while also creating new jobs.

“We did an indepth neighborhood assessment before considering the renovation,” Lee said, adding that the facility is so popular that one mother drives from Westfield so her preschooler can attend.

Leslie Lawrence, vice president of commercial lending for the Western Mass. Regional Office of MassDevelopment, said the loan money will be used primarily to renovate the building's second floor (currently unfinished) and reconfigure classrooms on the first floor. The center has seven classrooms, but the expansion will create a total of 13.

“When I started to learn about what they did here, I was amazed,” Lawrence said. “It's not just day care; it's so much more. It's a whole economic engine that is churning. It's providing people with education and the ability to get and keep jobs.”

It is also helping to revitalize the neighborhood, because the building, which once housed Holy Family School, had been vacant for some time before it was purchased by Square One.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how Square One has evolved into that economic engine Lawrence described, and at the many ways it is doing more within the community than provide daycare.

Learning Curves

Lawrence said it took about a year to finalize the terms of the loan granted to Square One, because MassDevelopment has a number of special loan programs for organizations that struggle on a daily basis to get funding. “All of the money they make goes back to operations,” she explained.

She told BusinessWest that Square One is a great example of what can be accomplished through fund-raising. “They spend a lot of time writing proposals for reimbursement for day care. But that doesn't cover their costs, which presents a challenge to the organization,” she explained.

The majority of its clients live in Holyoke and Springfield, and Lee said almost 90% of the population Square One serves is living at or below the poverty level, and 83% percent are single-parent households.

MassDevelopment has assisted Square One in the past, and Lawrence said it is happy to help out again.

“They have an incredible organizational structure and a good track record. Plus, they provide an unparalleled benefit to the community,” she said. “The King Street building is a perfect example of a public/private partnership because they have funding from both quasi-public and private sources.”

The renovation will cost $2 million and will be paid for by the loan from MassDevelopment, a $400,000 federal community block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and grants and private donations.

“Each partner has a shared appreciation for the critical role that early education and care plays not only in the lives of the children we serve, but also in the health and well-being of the community,” Lee said. “Parents are able to go to work while their children are learning skills they will need to become successful students.”

She said the renovation will allow Square One to care for infants and toddlers at its King Street location, something it can't do now. “The demand for that service is high. It's the most expensive type of child care, so many centers don't even offer it. But when the care is balanced with preschool, the equation becomes more viable.”

The King Street expansion is the latest manifestation of Square One as an economic engine, but it is far from the only example.

Day care facilities have a problem attracting qualified teachers because the pay for the occupation is fairly low. To cultivate interest in the career field, Square One approached Putnam Vocational Technical High School and helped it create a new vocational career track in early-childhood education and development.

The program was launched in 2009, and Square One built a classroom to accommodate 23 Putnam students in its King Street location.

“This is just a microcosm of economic development,” Lee said. “The program is percolating and may mean that parents who are working full-time or are in a job-training program or higher education will be able to continue.”

Fred Carrier gives the program high marks. “It is one of the best things that has happened to the school and to the students in the program,” said Putnam's senior administrator for special vocational projects. “It has expanded our offerings. We planned to open the program once we moved into the new school in 2012 [see related story, page 16], but would not have been able to start it up this early.”

He said Putnam officials were approached by Square One administrators after they heard that school officials wanted to start an early-childhood education career track. They offered to provide classroom space, Putnam hired a teacher, and the program was born.

Lee said the initiative provides a number of benefits.

“You can see the students connecting with our little people through the program, which gives them an immediate opportunity to put into practice what they are learning in their textbooks,” Lee said. “It is so successful, we are adding another classroom to accommodate it. The beauty of it is that the teens are gaining work experience in the classroom, and when they graduate they will meet the state requirement to become licensed as preschool teachers.”

American International College is also involved in the initiative, and is offering a $2,500 scholarship plus six credits to every student in the program who enrolls in their program after graduation.

Carrier said that, when the new Putnam High School is complete in 2012, the program will be moved there, but the school will continue to use the King Street center for clinical experience.

The career track has been well-received, and a number of students who had dropped out of school returned to take part in it. “They have succeeded academically and vocationally because of this program,” said Carrier. “One of the students who graduated this year would not have done so without the program.”

Ten students also have summer jobs, made available via a partnership with the Regional Employment Board and Western Massachusetts Electric Co., who are each paying the salary for five students.

All of Square One's programs have merit, and Lee says research validates that children involved in a quality early-childhood education environment are less likely to become involved with or use drugs.

“Studies show that 85% of who a person is has been formed by the time they reach age 5,” she said. “If a child is surrounded by education with the right kind of messages from compassionate adults, it has a tremendous lifelong influence in their emotional and physical development. For every $1 invested in early-childhood education and care, there is a $7 return because the population does not get involved with the criminal justice system.”

Three years ago, Square One launched a Parenting Works program conducted by social workers. It includes case management for families, help in creating and managing household budgets, training in how to shop for groceries with a focus on nutrition and stretching dollars, and education in positive parenting techniques. “Sometimes parents need a little help identifying what they are good at, so this is a strength-based model,” Lee said.

Joni Beck Brewer, vice president of family services at Square One, says the organization does all it can to support the whole family. “Children don't grow up in isolation, and we want to make sure families have the support they need to be the best parents they can be,” she said.

Parenting skills are taught during home visits. In addition, people are connected to appropriate resources when needed and invited to attend parenting groups.

The program deals with parents of all ages, ranging from teens to grandparents raising their grandchildren, and all services are free. “We work with many families who don't have a child in our Square One program,” Beck Brewer said. “We keep reaching out because many people are at a loss as to where to go for support.”

In one instance, a grandparent was caring for her son's children while he was deployed to Iraq. “She worked, but didn't have enough money to pay for child care,” Lee said. “We got on the phone with the Army, and they provided her with scholarship money.”

School of Thought

Square One also sponsors a program for incarcerated mothers and another called Fresh Start, which deals with parents who are recovering from substance abuse.

“We are an active collaborator and work with many organizations to develop, implement, and coordinate a variety of programs,” Lee said.

So, while the need for child care will always exist, Square One has come a long way from a mere babysitting service, and is now an economic engine in its own right.

© Copyright 2010 BusinessWest.