John Filz has been waiting for this day for nearly 18 years.
“It’s always been our plan to have an Early Head Start program here,” said the Ravalli Head Start executive director. “Now, we’re standing in the entrance of the tunnel of making that plan a reality.”
Last week, an excavator broke ground on a $1.2 million expansion alongside the current Ravalli Head Start building on Hamilton’s Kurtz Lane. If things go as planned, up to 24 youngsters ages 0-3 will be attending the program as early as next summer.
Ravalli Head Start’s Early Head Start program has been operated out of classrooms at the back of the Bitterroot College since 2010. The building that houses the college is owned by the Hamilton School District, which also owns the land where the current Ravalli Head Start building is located.
“We signed a lease with the school district for space for the Early Head Start program,” Filz said. “Halfway through that lease, the school made a deal with the college. The college has been good partners with us, but they need all the space they can get.”
The need to make the move was apparent by 2016. Filz started working with the city of Hamilton to seek a community development block grant, a federally backed loan through a local bank and some additional federal funding to cover the cost of the Early Head Start program addition.
Last year, that effort shifted after the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Head Start awarded the Hamilton-based organization $729,000 to build the addition. After bids for the expansion came in over budget in August, Ravalli Head Start received a supplement of $126,000.
“The project came in a little over $1.2 million,” Filz said.
The addition will be about 5,100 square feet. It will include three classrooms for infants and toddlers. The program will employ two full-time staff and two who will work part-time.
The construction will include the creation of a new area where parents will pick up and drop off their children, as well as some additional parking.
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The contract with Swank Construction includes a deadline of May 15.
Filz said the construction manager told him if everything goes perfectly, the company may beat that deadline.
“He’s not afraid of winter,” Filz said. “I think he’s optimistic we’ll make it by then.”
Ravalli Head Start’s lease at the old Westview School that currently houses the Bitterroot College is up in June.
“We think this should work out about perfect,” he said. “We hope to be able to move into our new addition in late May or early June.”
The current building is 15,900 square feet. Currently, the Ravalli Head Start program serves 85 Ravalli County preschool students in Hamilton and another 17 in Stevensville.
Last spring, Ravalli Head Start received a $758,412 to expand its services in Ravalli and Missoula counties and create new partnerships with local child care providers. The grant was expected to double the number of children it was able to serve.
Filz said last spring there is a clear shortage of child care in Ravalli County for children up to 3 years old. At the time, Filz said there was a waiting list for the center-based care of 27 to 30 babies and toddlers.
Placement in the Ravalli Head Start program remains highly competitive. Eligibility is primarily based on family income being at or below the federal poverty level. The program is required to set aside at least 10% of its enrollment to children with diagnosed disabilities.
“The vast majority of the families who have children in our program have at least one working adult in their family,” Filz said. “They are in the workplace. They’re just not making a lot of money.”