FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — University of Arkansas Fort Smith announced on Tuesday it has formed a partnership with the Arkansas Department of Human Services that will reportedly generate more than $1 million toward a new early childhood education center.

According to a press release, the $1.1 million project, which was officially funded in full on Sept. 1, will enable the university to renovate the Echols Building to transform the elementary school turned campus laboratory back into a childcare facility, calling the location a “perfect fit.”

“We are so grateful for this funding from the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education and the ability to provide the highest quality of care for our youngest learners,” said Dr. Shelli Henehan, professor, assessment coordinator, and director of Early Childhood Education at UAFS – and the lead in developing the partnership. “I truly believe this center will be transformative, as it will include collaborations among multiple programs in the College of Health, Education and Human Sciences.” 

According to Dr. Henehan, the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will serve 42 children up to the age of 3. Three classrooms will reportedly be remodeled and outfitted for the best care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. A large playground will be fenced and turned into an outdoor learning environment.

The university also received operations funding for the center’s first year, which will enable the center to go through the Better Beginnings Initiative process.

“In addition to providing high-quality childcare services to the UAFS campus community, the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will also afford students in the College of Health, Education, and Human Sciences a variety of educational opportunities that will serve to enhance and enrich the learning experiences in their respective programs,” said Dean of the College of Health, Education and Human Science, Dr. Dean Cantu. “To be certain, the UAFS Little Lions Child Development Center will serve as a multidisciplinary nexus of authentic learning opportunities for students in our respective programs of study, from Education and Nursing to Dental Hygiene and Social Work.”

Dr. Cantu says the center will also play an essential role in the school’s early childhood education program as a true laboratory for teaching and learning, which serves to foster interdisciplinary and community collaboration.

In the event the childcare center does not fill all of its classes with UAFS students’ and employees’ children, slots will be open to the broader Fort Smith community.