Like many small communities in Greater Minnesota, Echo has struggled with a dearth in childcare providers. Across the region, parents grapple with where to send their children, with many young families ultimately making the decision to move to a different community.

The crisis in childcare has prompted a variety of different solutions. In Clarkfield, the city is funding and overseeing the construction of a public daycare center, while in Granite Falls, Minnesota West is leasing space on campus to a private provider. Both projects expect to open later this year.

In Echo, the Every Child Has Opportunities (ECHO) Charter School is stepping up to provide their own solution to the childcare shortage problem. They are now in the final stages of opening a full time day care center located on site at the school, known as Bottle Rockets Child Care.

“It’s been an arduous process, but we’re very close,” says ECHO Director Helen Blue-Redner. She explains that they are currently working on ensuring compliance with the Minnesota Department of Health regulations. “It’s all intended to make sure we’re not just housing children, but educating them,” she said.

The school first began developing their idea for a childcare center last year. It began with informal conversations among teachers and staff, and progressed to visits with other childcare providers in the area. Although the solutions they researched were each different, they saw that the problem was the same.

“You can look in almost any newspaper and see that there’s a childcare shortage,” Blue-Redner said. “You think of other cities where parents are disenrolling their kids, and sometimes even moving. We are a small public charter school and we do not want to lose any of our kids. We love our students, and everyone really counts here.”

According to Blue-Redner, a lot of the drive for opening a childcare center came from parents. “We have a lot of families who have had their kids in daycare situations in homes, or in small child care centers, but because of how rulemaking works with the state, even the home providers have found that it’s a very onerous thing, and they just can’t do it anymore, so they leave it to a larger provider. That’s all fine and good, unless there isn’t a larger provider, which has been the case here. So, we’re stepping in to fill the gap.”

A big challenge in setting up the new childcare center is accommodating the myriad of regulations governing the daycare industry. “You have your logistical problems to navigate,” Blue-Redner admitted, “but the bottom line is really that we’ve already undergone one public safety inspection, we have a fire safety inspection coming up in February, and we’re totally approved by the DHS for our policies and procedures.”

The Bottle Rockets Child Care Coordinator, Holly Reigstad, has developed a special curriculum using her experience as preschool teacher and former daycare owner. Blue-Redner stressed that the ECHO school is uniquely positioned to provide childcare services with a strong educational component. “Kids get to reach deep into stuff that they love,” she explained. “We are building from the bottom up, and that’s amazing.”

In addition to food, naps, and other recreational activities, the new Bottle Rockets program will also meet the educational and developmental needs of the kids. Reigstad will work on “letter and number recognition, arts, music, and reading skills to get them ready for kindergarten. Our curriculum and daily schedule will be flexible to ensure we reach the needs, strengths and interests of each individual child in our care. A variety of hands-on experiences will be implemented to promote cognitive development as well as providing social awareness by exposing children to different cultures, environments and family dynamics.”

The childcare center is housed in two former classrooms. Reigstad has been working diligently to assemble cribs, decorate the walls, and organize toys. “It’s pretty much set up,” she said. “There are a few things I still need to assemble, but it’s pretty much there.”

At full capacity, Bottle Rockets will accommodate 37 children, assuming that the school meets certain fire safety regulations. This includes five slots available for children under the age of 30 months. Parents are already claiming spots, and the school expects the remaining spots to fill up rapidly. For more information about Bottle Rockets Childcare, please call the ECHO Charter School at 507-925-4143.