When it opened in 1986, the Discovery Child Development Center was like nothing the Franklin community had ever seen.

No licensed child care centers were open in the city at the time. Early childhood education was a nebulous concept. Most formal learning didn’t start for kids until they entered kindergarten.

The Discover Center changed all of that. Kids learned their ABCs, numbers, colors and shapes, and some were already reading and writing.

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“The kids get such a great foundation. They all started out ahead, started school reading well because of the programs they did there,” said Casey DeArmitt, whose three children have all attended the center. “It’s more than just daycare. They work with the kids on important things.”

Thirty years later, it remains a leader in local early childhood education. Thousands of children have attended the center, housed and operated by Johnson Memorial Health, since it opened.

The center is the only employee-based day care in the county, and being housed on Johnson Memorial Health’s campus means it receives the support of the hospital’s administration plus offers peace-of-mind to parents, said Judy Nevins, director of the center.

“Parents feel comfortable about having their kids cared for in a hospital. If there is a problem, the doctors are right down the hallway,” she said. “The hospital is very dedicated to quality, and we follow that trend.”

More rooms have been added to the center since it opened, and the curriculum has been adjusted to reflect changes in the way children are taught.

But the core foundation of providing kids with a safe place to learn while their parents are at work has remained central.

“We’ve always tried to put the parents and children first. Children have not basically changed in 30 years, but the needs of the parents change,” Nevins said. “We see more single-parent families, and the way parents work changed, so what we need to do is be there for them.”

Since the Discovery Center is housed and supported by Johnson Memorial Health, slots are open to its employees first. But the facility is open to the entire community as well.

Sarah McNeill’s children have been attending the center for the past 10 years. Her oldest daughter entered the Discovery program at 3 months old, and stayed in it through kindergarten. Her youngest daughter is 4 and also has been in the program since she was an infant.

The center’s philosophy on education and learning are a huge advantage.

“It’s more like a school. They really teach them how to write their name, do their numbers, teaching them everything to get them fully prepared for kindergarten,” McNeill said.

The center is set up like an elementary school. Each room hosts children of a different age, from infants a few weeks old to 5-year-olds.

Mornings are spent working on what Nevin calls the “core curriculum.” The center’s 24 teachers organize educational games, learning to identify colors or the alphabet. The older kids do preschool lessons lining up with early-childhood educational foundations, such as recognizing phonics and writing numerals.

“We try really hard to divide them up developmentally. We feel like that’s a lot more appropriate,” Nevins said. “If you put a 13-month-old toddler in with a child who’s almost 3, that doesn’t work.”

But though the program is structured, staff also tries to give the kids many opportunities for free play. An outdoor playground lets them climb, swing and slide.

Staff members stress the importance of thinking independently and building social connections with other children.

“My early childhood philosophy is, when they leave Discovery, I want them to be good citizens,” Nevins said. “They’ll learn how to read and count when they go to school, but I also want them to have good problem-solving skills and be able to get along with others, respect the rights of others.”

When the center was founded, it was like nothing that had ever existed in Johnson County before. Barbara Maughmer was the leader in setting it up.

Maughmer was the nutritional services director at Johnson Memorial Hospital in the mid-1980s. A mother of two young children, she had been advocating for a child care option at the hospital.

When hospital officials put her in charge of the project of creating such a center, she jumped at the opportunity. She worked out details such as where the center would be housed, what kind of curriculum it would feature and who should staff it.

“It was a combination of, as a mom, what would I want, and then as an employer, what would I want,” she said.

Maughmer wrote a justification of the benefits, such as the fact that there was no child care center in the city at the time. She collaborated with a child care resource that Maughmer had worked with while working at Purdue University to define the parameters of it.

The center was approved, and opened in late 1986. Within three months, the center had reached its original capacity of 85 children, requiring an extra corridor to accommodate more kids.

“It was a great experience for me to remember. I felt so strongly about my children being close-by, and this way, I never had an issue with day care,” she said.

Even before she had children, DeArmitt saw the value of an employer-sponsored daycare. When she was searching for a job in 2001, she was immediately attracted to the concept of a workplace offering child care.

“When I took the job, I didn’t have any kids, but I was thinking about it at that time in my life. Having an on-site daycare was a consideration for me accepting the job there,” she said. “I knew going in about the high quality of the center.”

DeArmitt had her first child, Abby, the next year. Since that time, all three of her kids have gone through the Discovery program. The youngest, Luke, is in the 3-year-old classroom currently.

The time at Discovery has laid the foundation for friendships that continue even today for her kids, DeArmitt said. Abby, now 14 and a freshman at Franklin Community High School, is close to a number of children who she grew up with at the center.

At the same time, the parents of the children also had formed friendships that have endured.

“Their best friends are kids that they went to daycare with, and it’s the same thing with me,” DeArmitt said. “The people I still keep in touch with and spend time with are the parents of children that my older two went to the center with.”

A majority of the children who come the center as infants or toddlers stay for all five years, Nevins said.

“It brings me a lot of joy. That means parents are happy with the service we’re providing here, and the children are happy and want to come,” she said. “Still, it’s very hard in May, when our Pre-K students leave. They’ve been here for most of five years, and it breaks my heart, even if you’re happy for them.”

At a glance

Discovery Child Development Center

What: A child care center operated and overseen by Johnson Memorial Health, intended for hospital employees as well as parents in the community in need of child care.

Founded: 1986

Where: Johnson Memorial Health

Capacity: Licensed for 103 children

Ages: 6 weeks to 5 years old

Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday

What’s included: Preschool and early education services, breakfast, lunch and two snacks planned and prepared by hospital’s nutrition services department, and field trips and special visitors provided several times each year.

How to sign up: An application is available at johnsonmemorial.org/discovery-child-development-center. Questions can be answered by calling 317-736-3361.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.