For the first time in decades, preschool programs in the Franklin Pierce School District have a home of their own.
Preschoolers spent many years in the old Parkland School building on Pacific Avenue, part of the campus of Pacific Lutheran University. But in 2013, when the building became the new home of Mount Rainier Lutheran High School, the preschoolers moved out.
For the past three years, they have been housed at the former Spanaway Elementary School, in the Bethel School District.
Now, more than 300 Franklin Pierce preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, are back home in Parkland — the heart of their own school district — in a newly renovated facility designed especially for them.
A game-changer for our children
Franklin Pierce Superintendent Frank Hewins
Superintendent Frank Hewins called the new facility “a game-changer for our children.”
School officials and guests this week celebrated the opening of the $7.3 million Franklin Pierce Early Learning Center. It is housed in a renovated building on A Street Souththat once was the site of the Parkland United Methodist Church.
The school district bought the building in September 2014 after the congregation decided to close it doors. Students moved to the new center in November, and the grand opening celebration was Tuesday.
The center serves some of the neediest kids in the district. Of the 320 students at the center, 89 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — widely acknowledged as a gauge for poverty.
One-quarter come from homes where Spanish is the primary language spoken. Other languages spoken by preschooler families include Russian, Moldavian, Punjabi, American Sign Language and Samoan.
Students from low-income families and those who learn English as a second language often struggle the most in school. Giving them an early academic boost will help them be better prepared to start kindergarten, Hewins said.
Programs at the center teach early literacy, math and social skills, as well as preparing kids to manage their own behavior and become more independent.
The center houses a variety of programs, including the federally funded Head Start, state-funded ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program), a developmental preschool taught by special-education teachers and a preschool that includes a mix of typically developing and disabled students.
The center also houses the district’s Birth-to-Three family resource coordinator, who helps families access special-education resources, and the Child Find screening program, which offers assessments for any 3-to-5-year-old in the district to determine if a child needs special education services.
89Percentage of Early Learning Center students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
Having all those programs under one roof means better coordination and communication, and more efficient services for kids, Principal Ruth Tiger said.
The 20,000-square-foot building was designed with little ones in mind, from its bright orange-and-green color scheme to the pint-sized commodes in classroom restrooms.
The center offers a special room equipped for occupational and physical therapy, a speech therapy room and space for small-group instruction. One classroom is for high-needs children on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a dream come true,” Tiger said of the center.
25Percentage of Early Learning Center students who come from Spanish-speaking homes
To build the dream on a tight time line, district officials worked closely with contractor McKinstry Co. and with state officials. A total of $2 million of the project’s cost came from the state capital budget.
Also at the celebration Tuesday were members of the Parkland United Methodist Church, which was renovated to house the learning center.
Congregants built their church from a 1930s military chapel that was moved to the Parkland site in 1959. The congregation will be remembered with a plaque that will be placed on the new building.
Hewins said the school district was sad to see the Parkland United Methodist Church dissolve after 125 years of service to the community.
“We hope to continue the same ethos of service for the next 125 years and beyond,” he said.
Already, there is a waiting list of students hoping to enroll at the Early Learning Center. And district officials are searching for funding for a six-classroom addition.