By Jason Starr
A child care business with three other northern Vermont locations is planning for an October opening of an infant-through-pre-K center in vacant office space on Talcott Road in Williston.
The standalone red building was once home to a landscaping business, a jewelry store, and more recently an engineering firm. Next Generation, which opened child care centers in Swanton and St. Albans two years ago and is opening a Burlington location this fall, is renovating and reconfiguring the building. Indoor renovations include a new kitchen and bathroom. Outdoors, the yard will be fenced in and two outdoor classroom spaces in the form of gazebos and storage sheds will be built.
Operator David LeBlanc told the Development Review Board last Tuesday during a hearing to approve the building’s change of use that the playground will have only natural elements.
“We are a nature-based program so anything inside the fenced-in area will be natural materials — a log, a sand area, stumps. There will be no big play structures. That doesn’t fit into our teaching philosophies,” he said.
The center has capacity for 56 children and will be open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sarah LeBlanc, co-owner with her husband, David, said the focus on outdoor education has proven popular, leading to Next Generation’s expansion to four locations. It also is the right model for a pandemic,” she said.
“The children can be outdoors in all weather,” she said.
Next Generation weathered the statewide shutdown of child care facilities in the spring with the help of some state and federal aid designed to keep centers afloat. But the ongoing paperwork related to accounting for the grant money has made the LeBlancs reluctant to accept more aid.
“It was very messy and challenging to get it accounted for and reconciled,” Sarah LeBlanc said. “The state didn’t make it easy.”
Next Generation’s enrollment has remained full in Swanton and St. Albans, and it is currently enrolling for Burlington and Williston. It is also hiring staff. LeBlanc said paying staff a salary instead of hourly has helped the center’s recruitment and helped it avoid staffing challenges that some child care centers face.
“We respect our staff as teachers, so we pay a higher salary,” she said. “Thankfully we haven’t had a staffing shortage.”