Indianapolis’ newest child care center opens inside Manual High School

This summer, the littlest learners will start at Manual High School.

What were once administrative offices have been turned into classrooms for infants and toddlers, outfitted with cribs, changing tables, and tiny chairs. A small auditorium has been divided and converted into preschool classrooms filled with new toys.

A new Day Early Learning child care center is opening in a wing of the high school, hoping to serve 80 children ages 0-5 on Indianapolis’ south side.

The program is part of a vision to turn what was once one of the lowest performing schools in Indiana into an educational hub for all ages, from babies to adults pursuing workforce certificates.

“Having it be this structure, where we can serve infants through great-grandparents on the same campus, really serves and benefits the entire community,” said Christel House Indianapolis Executive Director Sarah Weimer.

Christel House, one of the state’s oldest charter networks, has run Manual since 2020, after a decade-long state takeover saga. Manual was among five schools seized by the state in 2012 and handed over to outside companies in what was ultimately an unsuccessful experiment in school improvement.

Three of the schools closed; Manual and another school returned to Indianapolis Public Schools and are each under new management.

Manual is no longer just a high school anymore. After a $5.5 million renovation, Christel House relocated its entire South campus into the building this year, bringing in its existing K-12 school alongside the final classes of Manual High School students. It also moved in its free adult high school for students over 18 seeking to finish their high school diplomas.

It’s now called Christel House at Manual. Once so underused that the third floor was closed off, Christel House expects 1,800 students to fill the school by day with 250 more students coming in for night classes.

When the charter network took over running Manual, people in public meetings voiced broad support for offering child care, Weimer said.

“That got the most cheers out of every person in the community,” she said. “That’s what we heard over and over again, was that they needed more seats.”

Christel House decided to turn to an established child care provider: Early Learning Indiana, an early childhood education not-for-profit that runs the Day Early Learning centers.

The organization was interested in expanding to serve the city’s south side, where it can be hard to find providers that meet the state’s highest quality benchmarks. Within the south side area bordered by I-70, I-65, and I-465, there are only 10 high-quality providers, according to the state’s child care map. Many of them are clustered around the University of Indianapolis, and there are few others just beyond the interstates.

“What we’d like to be able to do is say we can serve you wherever you are,” said Maureen Weber, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana.

To create the child care spaces at Manual, Early Learning raised about $2 million for construction, with significant support from the United Way of Central Indiana.

Enrollment costs range from about $350 per week for infants to $250 per week for preschoolers. The center accepts On My Way Pre-K vouchers and federal child care aid, in addition to offering tuition assistance to families making up to about 300% of the federal poverty level, Weber said. That’s equivalent to a household income of $83,250 for a family of four, for example.

Pre-K students will have guaranteed seats in kindergarten at Christel House, avoiding the citywide enrollment lottery.

About half the seats at Day Early Learning at Manual have been filled. While the program is open to anyone, all of the families so far have some kind of tie to Christel House.

Burgandie Tyson, a graduate who attended Christel House from kindergarten through 12th grade, hopes her two children have the same kind of experience she did. Christel House still feels like family to her, she said, with caring teachers and close friends from small classes.

When she heard about the child care center opening, Tyson asked for more information from Christel House’s college and career counselor who stays in touch with alumni.

“I always knew that I wanted my kids to go to Christel House,” Tyson said, “and then when they opened up the Day Early Learning center, it was just perfect just to have them start even earlier, and have them start that routine.”

The classrooms are still waiting for finishing touches, like installing soap dispensers and paper towel holders. The white walls are bare as teachers wait for children to make art to put up. The first students are starting this week, with other start dates staggered throughout the summer. That’s in part due to the need to hire more staff members, Weber said.

The partnership with Day Early Learning also includes providing drop-in child care for students. Child care poses the biggest obstacle for students at the adult high school, who officials said often wouldn’t re-enroll or would drop out again because they couldn’t find reliable child care during their night classes.

Earlier this week, a few children spent time at the drop-in classrooms while their parents worked on finishing welding certifications. A baby napped in a crib. A 3-year-old played with wooden toy trucks. A girl practiced writing her name with a pencil. A boy spoke on a toy phone to a preschooler holding a cup to his ear, connected through an imaginary line. He ordered a pretend lunch: pizza and sushi.

The four children in the room have played together throughout the morning. The two preschoolers are some of the first to be enrolled at the child care center.

Weimer noted the benefits of having children of all ages sharing the same building. She said sometimes these older students can act as “reading buddies and playground helpers.”

“You don’t often get that in school,” she said. “It also puts a little bit of pressure on the older kids to make sure they step up when they’re in public spaces. They gotta watch their language, they gotta watch their interactions with their peers, because that’s my best friend’s little sister watching me.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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