New childcare center aims to boost north St. Louis neighborhood
Sometimes turning around a neighborhood means starting early. Like six-weeks-old early.
That’s the philosophy behind the Flance Center, an early childhood education center that will open next spring in the Murphy Park housing development just north of downtown St. Louis. It’s an $11 million bid to revive a long-troubled neighborhood by focusing on its youngest residents, to help children in one of the poorest parts of the city get off to as good a start in life as anyone else.
It’s an example of how it takes more than housing to create a vibrant neighborhood, said Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies, a nonprofit community development group that’s spearheading the project. And of the ways that building a healthy economy means more than just creating jobs.
“For us this is just the way you build a community,” Moore said. “We’re hoping it becomes a national model.”
Indeed, in recent years early childhood education has become an increasingly popular tool for long-term economic development. A number of states are experimenting with universal preschool, and there’s a growing research on how high-quality schooling for children under age 5 translates into better test scores in grade school and even higher earnings later in life. That’s true especially for children from poorer backgrounds.
All that investing in early childhood education makes not just social but economic sense, said Timothy Bartik, a researcher at the Upjohn Institute, a think tank in Michigan, who researches the economics of preschool.
“Early childhood education has some of the best evidence of pretty high bang for the buck,” he said. “Kids in effective programs develop skills that lead to a more effective labor force, higher earnings per capita and all the good things that go with that.”
But top notch day-care and preschool programs are expensive. And in neighborhoods such as Murphy Park they are too rare at any price. A 2009 report by the Child Day Care Association of St. Louis found nine licensed day cares in the ZIP code area that includes Murphy Park, O’Fallon Place and several other nearby subsidized housing developments.
Combined, they have room for fewer than half of the roughly 1,400 children under 5 who live there.
That lack of options soon became apparent to Urban Strategies, which has been working in the area for more than a decade. Once people have a place to live, Moore said, there may be nothing more important than education in making sure they live happier, healthier lives.
“Elementary school’s not soon enough,” Moore said. “We learned that if we could help create a condition that would send people better prepared for elementary school, that would get parents and caregivers more engaged and we’d have better outcomes.”
So in 2006, Urban Strategies and McCormack Baron Salazar, which built many of the housing developments in the area, started planning a child-care center. They partnered with the nonprofit University City Children’s Center and St. Louis Public Schools to design programs and leased a 1.5-acre site from the St. Louis Housing Authority. And they started raising funds.
It has taken seven years, and several pots of money — a $5 million federal grant, New Markets Tax Credits from McCormack Baron, private donations and $367,000 in state funds — but construction is now nearly done. And the first children will show up in March.
Walking through the half-built Flance Center on a cold morning in November, Moore and UCCC executive director Steve Zwolak showed off the spacious kitchen that will double as a community gathering space, hosting events and meetings. They walk past the conference rooms that will host training for other small day-care providers in the neighborhood, to leverage UCCC’s expertise beyond the Flance Center. And they show off the frames of classrooms that will house 154 children by this time next year.
The building is a light, open space, and that’s intentional, Zwolak said. It’s supposed to be attractive, and designed to be embraced by the community.
“We want parents and kids to see in, and teachers to see out. We want to hug children, and be hugged by the community,” he said. “As corny as that may sound, it’s exactly what this building will do.”
It caught the eye of Deborah Lancaster, a retired teacher who lives across the street from the Flance Center and has been watching it go up, piece by piece. She plans to sign up as a volunteer when it’s open. She sees too many children growing up in the neighborhood unprepared for school.
“The little people need to know what this world is about,” she said. “They need a learning center. Not just a place to be baby-sat.”
The Flance Center’s organizers are aiming for a broader reach, too, hoping that the place will draw new people in to Murphy Park, at least for child care. While 100 of the Center’s 154 slots will be reserved for children from five nearby public housing developments, the rest will be open to anyone, at sliding-scale prices all the way up to market rate. Moore and Zwolak said they were hoping to draw affluent families who live and work downtown — just a few blocks away — to come be part of a high-quality, mixed-income child care center.
“We want to go from the poorest of the poor, families that earn $5,000 a year, to $200,000-a-year households,” said Zwolak. “We’ll use the common language and experience of children to bridge that gap.”
It all can sound a little pie-in-the-sky, but the approach makes sense, Bartik said. Research shows that a full-service, education-focused child care and preschool can go a long way towards putting children on the right track towards a good education, a job and more.
“That’s a big boost,” he said. “If you think about what that does to a community, to demand for goods and services, to tax revenue, to crime reduction, to the quality of life, it’s a good thing.”
Marlene Hodges would agree. She grew up in Carr Square, a few blocks from the Flance Center, and now helps coordinate social services for residents in the neighborhood. She sees many young mothers struggling to balance work and child care, and too many little children with too little supervision. She’d like to see something better, and knows that many other people around Murphy Park would, too.
“This may not be the best neighborhood in the eyes of people who don’t live here. But it’s not any different from any place else,” she said. “People here want the best for their community.”
Starting from the very beginning.
Tim Logan is a business writer at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @tlwriter.