Delaware’s oldest child care center gets federal funds to support $7 million reconstruction

Since 1890, St. Michael's School and Nursery has been serving families in Wilmington. Now the historic facility is undergoing major renovations.

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St. Michael's School and Nursery undergoing construction

St. Michael's School and Nursery is undergoing significant enhancements with the construction of two additional classrooms at the front entrance and ongoing work removing the front circular driveway. (Courtesy of the St. Michael's School and Nursery)

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For more than 130 years, St. Michael’s School and Nursery has provided child care services and education to families in the Wilmington area. Now the school, which first opened in 1890, is in the final stages of a $7 million renovation and expansion.

Throughout its history, St. Michael’s has undergone several transformations. It began as an adoption center, then transitioned into an orphanage and later provided a safe haven for children whose parents worked at the Wilmington riverfront. By the 1930s, it was operating as a hospital for babies before evolving into a primary child care agency focused on early childhood education. Today, St. Michael’s stands as one of the nation’s — and Delaware’s oldest — child care programs.

When Lucinda Ross joined the board as the school’s executive director in 2016, she realized that significant upgrades were long overdue.

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“It has this incredibly rich history,” she said. “Some of the infrastructure was starting to show its wear and tear… Right before the pandemic started, we had a five-year business plan. We’d also done a community assessment showing that the city really needed more child care spots.”

As a result, the school redirected efforts towards expanding child care services and enhancing the quality of care for children. This mission attracted more donations and culminated in the recent award of a $1 million federal grant.

The total cost of the construction comes to almost $7 million.

“We started out with 16 classrooms, we will end up with 18 classrooms, all renovated [with] new floors [and] new windows; our windows and doors were old and not particularly energy efficient,” she said. “We’ll end up with those classrooms, plus new offices. [The] space that was at one time a full library, half of it will be an early childhood library and the other half will be kind of a community support area.”

The center currently serves about 160 children, and the expansion will accommodate around 40 more. The new community space is designed to promote workforce development, offering facilities like a social worker’s office, family resource room, study areas and space for on-site classes.

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Addition to that, the playground will become Americans With Disabilities Act–accessible and will allow for the expansion of the school’s outdoor curriculum.

“There’s a ramp going out into the playground. We’ve always had a temporary ramp, but now our big beautiful playground is going to be totally ADA-accessible and that’s directly because of the construction,” she said. “We have two nature coordinators who go into the classroom or take kids out to the outdoor classroom… we are extending on that.”

Removal of the circular driveway of the school's front entrance
Removal of the circular driveway of the front entrance for my walkable accessibility for staff and children drop-off. (Courtesy of the St. Michael’s School and Nursery)

Ross pointed out that addressing the child care crisis is essential, particularly with a significant waiting list where the majority of families are dependent on state help through the Purchase of Care, or POC, program.

“We right now have over 50 children on the waitlist, so there is definitely a need for child care,” she said. “Most of our children are inner city kids, 80% of our children, come on POC.”

Starting construction in 2022, the school’s goal is to wrap up by the middle of fall this year.

“We are hoping to be able to support individual families and the community in even richer ways,” she said.

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