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District 33 partners with nonprofits to build early learning center
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/23/2008 12:04 AM

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Young children living in West Chicago Elementary District 33 will have a chance at more than just a head start before entering kindergarten.

Some will have the opportunity to attend a new, state-of-the-art early learning center called Educare of West DuPage, which will offer intensive classes for children 5 years old and younger and require heavy parent involvement.

This month, board members from District 33 signed a contract with not-for-profit groups Lifelink Corp., Positive Parenting DuPage and the Gustafson Family Foundation that commits them to a partnership to create and operate the center. The hope is that the center will open by 2010.

"It is very unique for a school district to have a partnership with private funders," said Edward Leman, District 33 superintendent. "This project would otherwise cost the taxpayers upward of $10 million, and so this is a just huge and a tremendous benefit."

Educare of West DuPage will be built on the vacant lot just north of Indian Knoll school and will serve 150 children who are at risk of having academic difficulty when they reach school age. This includes some children of teen parents and from households that do not speak English, said Theresa Hawley, president of Educare of West DuPage board of directors and a member of the Gustafson Family Foundation board.

The center is one of a handful of Educare centers in the country and the first suburban center.

Children who attend the year-round, full-day program must live in households with working parents or guardians that qualify for child care public aid and will be selected through an application process.

Small classes - in groups of eight for ages newborn to 3 and classes of 17 for ages 3 to 5 - will be led by a teacher with a bachelor's degree, an assistant teacher and a teacher's aide. Parents also must attend seminars to learn essential skills, such how to read to their children and how to be involved in their academics. They must also be involved in running Educare of West DuPage, helping shape policy and plan activities.

"What we are doing is creating a model center that other programs from throughout the region can look at and see what is the best way to do early childhood instruction," said Hawley.

The center will cost approximately $9 million to build and launch, Hawley said. And, in addition to the Gustafson family, the The Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the McCormick Foundation have all contributed millions to its startup.

The McCormick Foundation will also pay the starting salary for Educare's local executive director, Leman said, while the Gustafson foundation has pledged $250,000 per year for operational expenses and the Buffett foundation will fund ongoing technical support and staff training.

The Educare building will belong to District 33, but the center will operate independently and have its own board of directors. District 33's traditional preschool will continue to be available.

Leman said he's excited to see how the program affects the students' pre-literacy, math and socialization skills once they enter District 33.

Hawley said the program will help more than just the 150 students who begin the program.

"It really is designed to be a catalyst for change in the region," she said. "To show what's possible when people see what happens when we do everything the research says we should do."