The Buffett Early Childhood Fund is proposing an ambitious plan with the Omaha Public Schools to create two infant and toddler centers with a mix of public and private funds.
Gladys Haynes, director of Nebraska Early Learning Initiatives at the Buffett fund, helped present a preliminary outline for the centers at the Omaha school board meeting Wednesday.
The centers are inspired by the demand for the Educare early childhood education program, which started in Omaha and has two sites at OPS elementary schools with lengthy waiting lists.
The infant and toddler centers would borrow portions of the Educare model — high-quality teachers, student-teacher ratios as low as 3-to-1, an emphasis on year-round education — and focus solely on low-income infants and toddlers in north Omaha and South Omaha.
Educare programs include a 50-50 split of infants and toddlers — some as young as 2 weeks — and pre-kindergarten students.
The new centers would cut out the preschool piece and zero in on nurturing students from birth to about 3 years old, preparing them for pre-K and kindergarten, building language and vocabulary skills and working with families to get involved in their children's education.
By age 3, children with college-educated parents typically have four times the vocabulary of low-income toddlers, Haynes said. Educare works to close that gap while also developing important social and emotional skills.
Many details still have to be hammered out, including funding and finding enough certified early childhood education teachers to staff the centers. The school board took no position on the proposal Monday.
Initial locations have been proposed at or adjacent to Skinner Elementary in north Omaha and Gateway Elementary in South Omaha, areas with a high demand for early childhood and child care programs and with high levels of poverty.
Construction funds would come from private sources, while the operating budgets for the centers would derive from a mix of private funds, Early Head Start dollars, state aid, parent payments and other sources.
Each center likely would cost $8 million to $8.5 million to build, while annual operating costs are estimated at around $2.1 million, Haynes said. Sixteen classrooms would serve up to 128 babies and toddlers at each center, with eight children per class.
Haynes said no decision has been made to operate the centers under the Educare banner, but the programs would serve as a feeder to OPS's pre-K programs and elementary schools, not to Educare's existing sites at Kellom and Indian Hill Elementary Schools.
“We see these centers as hubs for the neighboring schools,” Haynes said. “Kids would come and attend the centers and then go back to their neighborhood school.”
Blueprints will be drawn up through the fall, and construction could start as early as November. The Buffett fund will continue to work with OPS on locations and programming.