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D-4 plans for new Early Learning Center

ADDISON – The Early Learning Center in Addison School District 4 will do more than expand the district’s preschool and early childhood programs: It will allow the district to provide full-day kindergarten to all students in the 2015-16 school year.

“It will hopefully serve more in the preschool enrichment program because right now, we turn quite a few kids away,” Superintendent John Langton said.

The students

Currently, he estimates the district serves about 160 students – ages 3 to 5 – in the pre-kindergarten programs at Ardmore School, but he hopes the Early Learning Center could accommodate as many as 360.

The center would continue to offer Preschool for All, a grant-driven program for at-risk learners, and the early childhood program, which serves student who have individualized education programs.

The center would not offer paid preschool programs like some churches and other facilities in town already provide.

“We’re not looking to compete with those because actually, they do a really good job,” Langton said.

The district

In addition to expanding opportunities for children between 3 and 5 years old, the center would open up space for the district to offer full-day kindergarten at all elementary schools, one of the goals set by the Board of Education’s five-year strategic plan in 2011.

With the creation of the Early Learning Center, Ardmore School – which currently serves only early learners – would become a kindergarten through fifth-grade school and take in students from other District 4 schools, opening more space in those buildings for full-day kindergarten.

In fall 2011, the district began a pilot program at Army Trail Elementary School that provided full-day kindergarten.

“The pilot was successful. We decided to expand it community-wide,” Langton said. “The challenge that we have is space.”

The building

The Early Learning Center will be a brand-new building attached to Ardmore School. While the two buildings will share some systems like heating and air conditioning, they will function as separate facilities with individual entrances.

“One of the unique things about 3 to 5 children is they need a flexible space,” Langton said.

The district hired Legat Architects, a firm with educational and environmental design experience, to design the eight- to 12-classroom center.

Robin Randall, director of the K-12 Education Market for Legat, is an educator herself who teaches at Judson University.

“It’s very important that we reach these early learners,” Randall said.

She explained that early learning environments play a large role in exciting students about education. Early learners need a variety of spaces to stimulate different types of learning, such as a building area for hands-on play and a quiet area for independent activities, she said.

The community

Legat and District 4’s Buildings & Grounds Committee hosted a meeting in March for stakeholders, including teachers, paraeducators, related service staff and parents to give input on the project.

“We bring an expertise, but we want to customize it particularly for Addison,” said Randall, explaining she values the community input.

Keeping the space flexible seemed to be a priority, she said.

The cost

The district is prepared to spend $5 million on the project, but Langton said he hopes it costs a little less. The district has already secured the necessary funds.

“Last fiscal year, the state actually appropriated a larger portion of the original state aid than was projected,” Langton said.

That additional money, combined with existing fund balances, will cover the cost of the project.

Randall understands the investment the district is making and believes providing flexibility for the building will keep it functioning long into the future.

Next steps

Randall expects to have a few designs ready for the Board of Education meeting at the end of April. The board is expected to choose one and move forward.

The district plans to open the Early Learning Center in time for the 2015-16 school year.

In order to offer full-day kindergarten at all seven elementary schools, the district will need to redraw attendance boundaries.

“The goal with those changes will be to identify the options that have as few changes as possible,” Langton said.

While he is not sure how changing boundaries will affect existing students, families with more than one child, and transportation, Langton believes the Early Learning Center and full-day kindergarten will benefit students.

“I’m most looking forward to our students having a stronger foundation than they currently do,” Langton said.

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