District nears deal with charity for new early-childhood education center

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The District is nearing agreement with a philanthropy run by the daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett to open a $12 million early-childhood education center in the Parkside neighborhood of Ward 7, officials said Tuesday.

The Educare Center is expected to serve 175 infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families on a site adjacent to Neval Thomas Elementary School. Construction, which could begin as early as this summer, would be financed with private funds from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation and other national organizations.

Head Start and other federal and state child-care programs would provide most of the $3.3 million annual operating budget for the center, which would be overseen by a new, local nonprofit agency.

The remaining piece of business is a land lease from the District for the site next to Thomas, which is expected to come before the D.C. Council in two weeks. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said Tuesday that he anticipates no opposition.

"It's one of these situations where there are a lot of winners," said Gray, who led the council's passage of 2008 legislation to increase the District's investment in early-childhood education and has been an advocate for universal pre-kindergarten enrollment. "This adds to our arsenal of tools we have available to influence these children."

About 2,000 children in the District lack access to early-childhood programs, and officials report that demand is increasing. Over the last two years, D.C. has added about 700 new pre-K seats for 3- and 4-year-olds, an increase of 15 percent. This fall, the District will add 25 more preschool and pre-K classrooms at 18 schools for about 435 new students. Half of the new seats will be east of the river, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told the council on Monday.

District and Parkside community leaders envision Educare as an important strand in an eventual web of birth-to-college social and educational services, similar to New York's Harlem Children's Zone. Founded by educator Geoffrey Canada, the zone serves more than 10,000 children and 7,000 adults in a 100-block area, starting with parenting workshops and extending through Promise Academy, a public charter high school.

A consortium of local organizations, including America's Promise Alliance, chaired by Alma Powell, wife of former secretary of state Colin Powell, and City Interests, headed by developer Alan Novak, is applying to the Education Department for funding under the new Promise Neighborhoods initiative, the Obama administration's attempt to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone idea in selected communities across the country.

Novak sees an education continuum that starts with Educare, runs through a revitalized Thomas Elementary and leads to the Parkside campus of Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter School, which includes grades 6 to 12.

"It's something that Ward 7 has never seen before," said Novak, who added that plans are also in the works for housing and a primary-care clinic. "Our commitment is to transform and deliver to underserved citizens a better place."

The new Educare Center would be one of 10 built by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, founded in 2005 by Susie Buffett. Her father, Warren E. Buffett, is a member of the board of directors of The Washington Post Co. Other cities with Educare facilities include Omaha, Chicago, Milwaukee and Denver.

Daniel J. Pedersen, the Buffett fund's president, said the idea behind Educare is to demolish the "silos" that separate public and private efforts to increase access to early-childhood education.

"The investment in kids at risk from birth to 5 is too big for philanthropy, school districts, state governments or federal government to solve alone," he said. He said likely local partners for the center include D.C. public schools, the District's Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the United Planning Organization.

According to its Web site, Educare centers offer high staff-to-child ratios, with three adults in each class, including a lead teacher with a bachelor's degree and course work in early-childhood education, as well as an assistant teacher with an associate's degree, and a teacher's aide.

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