The early-childhood center is slated to open in the shuttered Thaddeus Stevens School building on 21st Street NW near the Farragut West Metro Station. It will be known as the Stevens Early Learning Center and is part of a broader city effort to expand access to early-childhood education.
Throughout the country, school districts are attempting to increase access to quality early-childhood-care programs to tackle the persistent achievement gap between children from low-income families and their wealthier peers — a gap that tends to widen as children get older.
The goal is to ensure that students across all backgrounds start kindergarten on equal cognitive and developmental footing.
The District introduced universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in 2007, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the city is focused on providing education for children from birth to age 3.
“We recognize the heavy demand for parents looking for day care and preschool is only going to increase, and it’s very important that we meet that need,” Bowser said.
Bright Beginnings will operate the program for the youngest children. Low-income families will not pay anything for their children to attend but must qualify for local and federal child-care subsidies.
The separate prekindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds, which D.C. Public Schools will run, will be open to any child who participates in the city’s school lottery placement system. The city will cover the costs of the prekindergarten classes, as it does for any other public school student.
It will have a few classrooms dedicated to young children with special-education needs.
The Bowser administration said it has dedicated $52 million to create similar stand-alone childhood facilities at three other closed schools. Next up: The city is in the early stages of transforming the former Marshall Elementary School in Northeast Washington into an early-childhood center.
While the stand-alone early-childhood center will be novel, the city already has three infant and early-toddler centers at existing elementary schools. The idea with those existing centers is that children can attend the same school for the first decade of their lives. United Planning Organization — a community agency founded in 1962 to bring programs to the District’s low-income residents — operates those early-childhood centers.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said stand-alone campuses such as Stevens can offer more slots than co-located programs by having a campus solely dedicated to the city’s youngest learners. The stand-alone campuses can also provide professional development opportunities for preschool teachers.
“The beauty in this is that you can have up to eight early-childhood education classrooms at the school,” Ferebee said. “And we think there is a lot of potential and promise in having all of those teachers on one campus and creating their own professional learning network among those teachers.”
To determine enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds, the Stevens Early Learning Center will give an advantage to children from low-income families in the school lottery placement system. It marks the first time the city will use what is known as an at-risk preference. D.C. students are considered at-risk if they are in foster care, homeless or their families qualify for public assistance.
Nearly half of D.C. public-school students are considered at-risk. The question of whether at-risk students should be given preference has been debated for years. Some top charter schools — where students must apply through the lottery — have enrollments in which fewer than 10 percent of students are at-risk.
At-risk D.C. students tend to perform lower on standardized tests and other academic metrics than their wealthier peers.
At Stevens Early Learning Center, the city will reserve a certain percentage of seats in the two prekindergarten years for at-risk children. The city has not yet determined that percentage.
“We know that the foundation of their entire education rests in the early childhood years,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said. “So having an at-risk preference at Stevens allows us to provide more opportunity to students who are coming from at-risk circumstances.”
City leaders said they expect that students who attend Stevens Early Learning Center will help narrow the city’s achievement gap as the children grow older. Officials will track the outcomes of students to determine whether they want to expand the at-risk preference.
“The most diverse learning environments oftentimes produce the best results for students and families,” Ferebee said. “We hope to learn a lot from this pilot around the benefits at this particular campus and what we can learn that will influence other models that will represent a similar approach.”
The Thaddeus Stevens School, which opened in 1868, was one of the first campuses built to educate black students using only public funds. Years later, President Jimmy Carter sent his daughter to the school. It was shuttered about a decade ago amid declining enrollment.