A new $4.6 million building is at the heart of an ambitious effort to create a comprehensive program of early childhood education and training in an impoverished Omaha neighborhood.
It's the flagship project of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Approved for construction near 24th and Franklin Streets in north Omaha, it is intended as a test bed for programs that could be implemented around the metro area or even the state.
“That's what we're supposed to be doing — kind of sticking our foot in the water and trying things, not randomly or experimentally, but best practices,” said Ted Stilwill, the Learning Community's chief executive officer. “And that informs what everybody else is trying to do.”
Critics have raised questions about the cost of the new center, which will be built by and leased from the nonprofit Omaha Economic Development Corp.
The building, scheduled to open in September 2014, is projected to cost taxpayers in Douglas and Sarpy Counties more than a half-million dollars a year to lease, or $5.6 million over the 10-year lease agreement.
It will cost more per square foot to build than some recently constructed metro-area elementary schools and will have classroom space for just 16 infants and toddlers.
The new center is being built before the superintendents of the 11 school districts in the Learning Community start work on their own plan for expanding early childhood education, a task they were given this year by the Legislature.
Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said he hopes the Learning Community's efforts will match with the superintendents' eventual strategy.
“It works best when everybody's moving toward the same objective,” he said. “Maybe as we move forward, all these things will come under one umbrella.”
Although the new center's lease rate will be comparable to the finest commercial office space in Omaha, Stilwill and Learning Community Council Chairwoman Lorraine Chang said the cost is reasonable, given its multiple uses and specialized design.
Stilwill said the 20,000-square-foot building will also serve as headquarters for the Learning Community, as a clinical setting to train future teachers and local child care providers, and as a community center where low-income parents can learn parenting skills.
Early childhood education has long been viewed as a way to break the cycle of generational poverty. Learning Community leaders say their project expands the concept by also teaching new skills to parents and child care providers.
Chang said it's wrong to view the building as simply providing child care to 16 kids.
“That has to be viewed in a larger context of a strategy that is designed to develop the capacity of the consistent, caring adults in those children's lives,” Chang said.
“We're looking out to generations of kids who are going to be born in poverty and hopefully create more sustainable success for those children to move the whole community out of poverty,” she said.
Stilwill acknowledged that many of the center's programs and services are not new to Omaha.
Educare, a nonprofit early childhood program, already provides child care at a site close to the center, for example. And family support programs are available from various organizations, including Lutheran Family Services, which the Learning Community has hired to help support the preschool families at nearby Kellom and Conestoga Elementary Schools.
But it's valuable, Stilwill said, to bring all the child care, support and education programs together in one building, targeted at a specific set of families in a particular community.
“Somebody is doing parts of these things somewhere,” he said. “But is the coordination and intensity there? That's not happening.”
Learning Community officials say their approach is based on research showing that early childhood education is a promising strategy for closing the achievement gap for low-income students.
Testing data show that low-income students often enter school with weaker language ability and other skill deficits compared with middle-class peers, and schools have struggled to help them catch up.
“If you have a kid who enters kindergarten or first grade and they're behind, they will most probably stay behind,” said State Sen. Greg Adams of York, a former teacher who was chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee before becoming speaker. “They're going to run a catch-up race. And after a while, if they don't catch up, they give up.”
Many educators believe that quality child care and preschool programs can help low-income students enter kindergarten with solid skills, such as an adequate vocabulary.
For example, Educare found that its high-poverty students scored higher on a vocabulary test for kindergarten-bound children than most other low-income students. And Educare students scored higher the more years they had been enrolled in the program.
Researchers say low-income children also benefit when their parents or other caregivers know more about how to stimulate their minds and teach social and emotional skills. Educare and other programs often try to work with parents to improve their ability to help their children.
Meanwhile, there's a shortage of teachers trained to work in early childhood programs, particularly those serving low-income children.
The new Learning Community center in north Omaha is designed to address all those concerns. The center will house:
» Two classrooms for infants and toddlers.
» Support services for their families.
» Training programs for parents and workers at local child care centers.
» Space for college classes for early childhood educators from Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College.
The infant and toddler classes, which will be operated by Educare, will have observation windows to allow parents, caregivers and college students to see education strategies in operation. College students will have opportunities to work in the classrooms as well.
In addition, the center will provide support to eight early childhood classrooms offered at Kellom and Conestoga. Those two high-poverty elementaries added classes for 3- and 4-year-olds this year at a total cost of $1.5 million, including $500,000 from the Learning Community.
The new building will become the first state-mandated learning center to serve north Omaha. The council already opened one in South Omaha, offering programs tailored to that community.
Under the 2007 law creating the Learning Community, state senators directed the new entity to open “learning centers” in the poorest parts of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The law describes them as “visionary resource centers” for enhancing the academic success of elementary students challenged by factors such as poverty, limited English skills and frequent moves.
Initially lawmakers allowed the council to levy property taxes to buy or build facilities for the centers. In 2010, state lawmakers restricted the facility spending to leases.
Chang said the council is not sidestepping the law by having someone construct a building for the Learning Community and then leasing it.
“I don't think we're doing anything contrary to what the legislative intent was,” Chang said.
Government entities routinely lease space, and leasing avoids the long-term liability of ownership, she said.
Stilwill said he looked for buildings to renovate but decided they were too costly or couldn't be modified for the center's intended use.
He said he looked at a three-story warehouse formerly owned by the Omaha Public Schools, a former monastery and other buildings but ruled them out.
Stilwill said he talked “briefly” with officials at Educare about making use of their preschool facility adjacent to Kellom. Expanding that facility wasn't feasible, he said, and it wasn't conducive to offering the training for parents and child care providers.
Educare officials view the center as a way to serve more children and reduce their waiting lists, he said.
Their facility at 22nd and Paul Streets opened in August 2005 and provides early childhood education for poor families, drawing on federal, state and private funding.
Educare runs 11 classrooms for infants and toddlers and four preschool classrooms at its north Omaha facility, said Gladys Haynes, consultant to the four Educare facilities in Nebraska.
The new classrooms at the Learning Community center will barely dent the demand for placements in birth-to-age-3 classrooms, she said.
“If anyone said, 'We'll give you free space to operate infant and toddler classrooms,' we'd probably jump at it,” she said.
Debora Wisneski, professor of early childhood education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said UNO would gladly place students at the center, though there are no current plans for that.
Demand is up for teachers of infants and toddlers, she said, and UNO is launching a new certification program to train teachers to work with them, she said. It can be difficult to find high-quality practicum settings with capacity and willingness to let novice teachers into the classroom, she said.
Metropolitan Community College sees advantages in placing students at the center, said spokeswoman Krystal Overmyer: Multiple students could be placed at one location, also making supervision and feedback of the student teachers easier.
Kris Carter, the Learning Community Council member who represents impoverished portions of north Omaha, said hands-on experiences would help prepare teachers for urban areas.
Creighton University has no early childhood education program but is making plans to start one, Stilwill said.
Carter said the center will also serve as a place for parents to get training and resources.
She said the school system can intimidate low-income parents, who worry they will be blamed for being inadequate.
“There's always that fear factor that, 'They're going to come in and take my kids away,' maybe,” Carter said. “That's the whole point of the center, in that it's not a district thing or a social service thing but a community thing, where they're feeling invited and welcomed and able to share without the repercussions or the finger-pointing.”
Chang said there's “no question” the Learning Community is borrowing from similar programs that have worked in other arenas. But the focus on families and care providers and the partnerships with teacher preparation programs set it apart, she said.
“I don't know that it's being done quite this way anywhere else,” she said.
Criticism has centered on the cost of the building.
Martha Slosburg, a council member from the Westside Community Schools, said the council should have explored cheaper alternatives to new construction.
“The building is too expensive, period,” Slosburg said.
When the Learning Community sought proposals last spring to lease space for the center, only one other proposal was offered. The proposal submitted by White Lotus Group cost about $75,000 less but was rejected because the developer had not secured land, Stilwill said.
Stilwill said the lease payment will be $522,800 for 2014-15, then rise to more than $600,000 in the ninth year of the 10-year lease, he said.
At $26 a square foot, the lease cost is more than the $20 to $25 per square foot charged for leasing office space in more high-end areas of Omaha.
In north Omaha, by comparison, the Omaha Economic Development Corp. advertises lease rates of between $8 and $11 in the Long Street Marketplace, a retail shopping strip next to the project site.
Project costs for the early education center add up to about $230 a square foot, higher than projects in other school districts. Millard is building a 12,780-square-foot addition to Rohwer Elementary School for $134 a square foot. The Elkhorn Public Schools spent $144 and $145 per square foot, respectively, on the just-opened Sagewood and West Bay Elementary Schools.
Stilwill said that the center contains a kitchen and a storm shelter, and that those drive up the cost. A full elementary school also has those features, he said, but can spread the expense over a larger structure, resulting in a lower cost per square foot.
If the center's programs prove effective, replicating them across the community would require a substantial investment by the federal, state and local governments.
Over the long run, Stilwill said, spending money on younger children would conceivably ease the need for remediation and special education in upper grades.
Adams said the Learning Community seems focused on the right things and in the right way. When the Legislature created the educational cooperative for all of Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County, he said, senators were “very vague” about what it should do to improve education.
“The role has been evolving,” Adams said. “I'm more comfortable with the direction they're going now.”