A crowd of D.C. VIPs including Mayor Vincent C. Gray and former Mayor Anthony Williams gathered Thursday to celebrate the opening of Educare, a new $16 million early childhood center meant to close the achievement gap by enrolling infants as young as six weeks old.

Educare is an anchor for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which aims to improve poor children’s lives by creating a web of social services for their families. (Emma Brown/The Washington Post)

“People always laugh when I say that,” the mayor added, “but I’m serious.”

The new center, in Ward 7’s Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood, will serve 157 babies, toddlers and preschoolers and their families. Unlike many other preschools and day care centers, it offers a full-day program and is staffed by teachers who have at least a bachelor’s degree.

It’s one of more than a dozen early childhood centers across the country that are part of the Educare network, which emphasizes helping children, in part by building close relationships with their parents.

“Many parents, especially in distressed communities like this one, do not know what they need to do to support learning,” said Portia Kennel, who started Educare a dozen years ago in Chicago and now serves as its executive director. “They want their children to succeed in school, but they need help.”

The new D.C. building was funded through private foundations, notably the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. It sits on land donated by D.C. Public Schools.

The United Planning Organization, the local Head Start grantee, will operate Educare with a combination of local, federal and private dollars.

Educare is an anchor for the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, which aims to improve the prospects of poor children by creating a web of social services for their families.

Also part of the neighborhood initiative are Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter School, which led the effort to win a $500,000 federal planning grant in 2010; and Neval Thomas Elementary School, which is adjacent to the new building.

“I love it,” said Shanae Williams, 20, who said she didn’t know how she would manage to go to community college, look for a job and care for her two kids if not for Educare.

Also on hand Thursday were Alma Powell of America’s Promise Alliance and developer Alan Novak, who have both been key players in the neighborhood initiative; Ward 7 councilwoman Yvette Alexander; Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Bebe Otero, among others.