Apr 12, 2024

Saint Albans Messenger: State investments to help build Spark Academy, new child care center, in Swanton

State investments to help build Spark Academy, new child care center, in Swanton

SWANTON — Swanton’s first child care center is set to open this July, thanks to two experienced, local women looking to make a difference.

Michelle Marchant-Sheldon and Vickie Gratton, two long-time home-based childcare providers, are partnering to open Spark Academy at 71 ½ First Street.

“We saw a need, and we said, ‘We can do this,’” Gratton said.

Spark Academy was made possible by funding from Act 76, Vermont’s new child care law, and from a Make Way for Kids grant from First Children’s Finance and the Child Development Division.

When open, the center will triple the local child care capacity by offering 37 slots for children ages 2-9. All spots have already been filled, but Marchant-Sheldon and Gratton are still figuring out schedules to see if there are any half-day or partial-week opportunities available.

The center will also employ seven staff members, five of which will be new jobs.

“They really are doing something incredible, and they finally have the tools to be able to do it,” Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, said.

Building the foundation

Marchant-Sheldon and Gratton both got started in child care as young moms, 30 and 25 years ago, respectively. Their home-based programs – Gratton’s in Franklin and Marchant-Sheldon’s in Swanton – were ideal for taking care of their own children as well as others in the community.

“I love watching children grow and develop and just go through the different phases,” Gratton said. “They all have those ‘aha’ moments at different times, which is really fun to watch.”

Both women are registered providers, meaning they are certified by the State of Vermont to partner with local schools to offer pre-Kindergarten education. Both also completed the Prior Learning Assessment through Community College of Vermont to earn credit for the college-level learning they’ve gained while on the job.

Gratton decided to go on and pursue her bachelor’s degree, which she is expected to complete this year.

“I started taking it more seriously than just being a daycare, or somebody that was babysitting children. It is more of a profession,” Marchant-Sheldon said. “There was such a need for it, and I absolutely love it.”

As of 2021, there were approximately 1,400 Franklin County kids in need of child care, according to an assessment by Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide child care advocacy group.

And while child care slots are few and far between across Vermont, they are especially sparse in Swanton. Marchant-Sheldon, a 20-year resident of the town, said when long-time providers retired, new state regulations on the field made it difficult for the next generation to step up.

“It’s hard work and it takes money, it takes funding,” she said.

That’s where Act 76 comes in, the landmark child care bill that state lawmakers passed in 2023. The bill will invest $125 million annually into Vermont’s child care system, making care more affordable for families and the profession more sustainable for providers.

“That bill is going to change the landscape for child care in Vermont,” Richards said.

In June 2023, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill, opposing the new payroll tax that will help fund the initiative. While the legislature ultimately overturned the veto, Franklin County’s delegation largely voted “no,” except for Rep. Ashley Bartley (R-Fairfax) and Rep. Michael McCarthy (D-St. Albans City).

A vision for growth

Just this past weekend, more Vermont families became eligible for child care tuition assistance through Act 76. In October, even more families will be granted lower rates.

To get ready for the flood of families who will soon be looking for care, the state has been providing “readiness payments,” among other forms of financial assistance, to current child care providers since fall 2023.

Providers have flexibility in how they use the payments, but are encouraged to use the dollars to support stability, expansion and quality. In Swanton, Marchant-Sheldon and Gratton saw an opportunity to start Spark Academy, confident they’d have sustainable future income and money in their pockets to keep their home programs running in the meantime.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the funding,” Marchant-Sheldon said.

“The main things we're starting to see in the early stages of implementation: existing programs are expanding, new programs are opening and compensation is increasing for early childhood educators.” —Aly Richards, CEO Let's Grow Kids

In addition to those readiness payments, Marchant-Sheldon and Gratton applied for an Infant and Toddler Capacity-Building grant from First Children’s Finance, the non-profit contracted by the State of Vermont to distribute designated American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Spark Academy was awarded more than $50,000, Erin Roche, director of First Children’s Finance said, due to the need for more child care spots in Franklin County.

“This was a great opportunity to support two women entrepreneurs who are investing their experience into something bigger,” Roche said.

Since December, First Children’s Finance has awarded 60 grants totaling $1.9 million to child care programs across Vermont. Grants will continue to be awarded to new applicants annually.

These funding initiatives have made a variety of projects possible across the state.

Apple Tree Learning Center in Stowe, for example, built an addition onto its facility to accommodate more children. A former high school in Wilmington was transformed into a child care and community center. In Cabot, a child care center opened for the very first time.

“The main things we're starting to see in the early stages of implementation: existing programs are expanding, new programs are opening and compensation is increasing for early childhood educators,” Richards said.

People-powered progress

It was Gratton’s daughter who came up with Spark Academy’s name.

“We went back and forth with a million names…but then she said ‘spark’ and it sparked,” Marchant-Sheldon said, laughing.

Coming from their home-based programs, Marchant-Sheldon and Gratton want the new space to still have a “homey” feel while being more professional and classroom-like.

“We want to be a hub for families and a comfortable place for children,” Gratton said.

When the center opens, the women are excited to work both with each other and the five other staff members they’ve hired. The team will consist of caregivers and early childhood educators with varying levels of experience who all enjoy working with toddlers.

“Because both Michelle and I worked alone all the time, we know the value of a team and how it's better for the kids. There’s more continuity,” Gratton said.

Funding from Act 76 – including a 35% increase in state reimbursement rates (the funds paid directly to a child care program on behalf of an eligible family) – is helping raise wages for child care providers too.

For Richards, bolstering the early childhood workforce and fueling its pipeline is key to ensuring there's enough child care in Vermont for all families. Now that Act 76 is rolling out, she sees that as the next phase of work for Let’s Grow Kids.

“We have to finish the job,” Richards said. “Solving the child care crisis is within our reach. And that's what's so exhilarating about it. The funds are flowing. We owe it to Vermonters to get this right.”

As for Spark Academy, its next steps are to finish renovations to its building, pass all safety inspections and finish up enrollment.

“We are thankful for the grant and the new Act 76, which makes it so parents are actually able to afford child care and be able to go to work,” Marchant-Sheldon said. “We've had a lot of support from friends and family and our husbands too.”

Written by Bridget Higdon for Saint Albans Messenger and published on April 12, 2024.

Back To Top


Get the latest news and updates on Vermont’s Child Care Campaign from the Let’s Grow Kids team, directly to your inbox: