Premiere early childhood center in North City

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Children who skip past an early childhood education program often aren’t prepared to begin school.

Natalie Means, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in North St. Louis, sees it all the time. New kindergarteners who don’t attend good pre-schools enter the school without knowing their own first and last names, addresses, numbers 1-10 or alphabet letters, according to a report by the nonprofit group Urban Strategies, Inc.

“My kindergarten teachers can always tell the difference between students who have been in our preschool or a high-quality preschool versus a daycare center where they are dropped off and babysat all day,” Means said.

Jefferson has three preschool classes with 60 students total, yet it still has a waiting list.

In January, Urban Strategies and McCormack Baron Salazar will break ground on a new early childhood education center, just steps away from the elementary school in the Murphy Park neighborhood.

University City Children’s Center will operate the 23,000-square-foot center at 1908 O’Fallon Street, which will be named The I. Jerome and Rosemary Flance Early Childhood Education Center. The center will commit 100 of the 154 slots to low-income children, who will most likely attend St. Louis Public Schools. The Flance Center will take children from infants to five years of age.

“There is an opportunity to turn over 100 kids who are prepared to come into public schools in terms of their health and literacy readiness,” said Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies. “Over time we’ll see a pathway of change in their distressed zip code.”

In the 63106 zip code, more than 90 percent of children are born to single mothers. This zip code also has the greatest increase in the number of infants being born in the entire city. Yet, it has the lowest average household income in the city – $22,597.

“It’s a high need,” Means said. “I’m grateful that Urban Strategies and McCormack Baron Salazar wanted to include me in the process. That speaks to the type of partnership we have with those two entities and the community. They understand that there are ways to get kids prepared so we can go much further.”

The center will also serve as a training hub for childcare providers to learn best practices, through a partnership with the LUME Institute, which evolved from and works to implement the curricula developed by the University City Children’s Center.

“The potential ripple effect of healthier, well-prepared children by the hundreds going into our school system has a long-term positive impact on our region,” Moore said. “This is a big step for 63106, because there are no learning and training education centers of this type anywhere in the north side of the city.”


Transforming a neighborhood

For many years, the Murphy Park neighborhood has been working towards building an environment that launches children and families into better education and health outcomes.

Historically, this neighborhood has faced its share of struggles. After the Great Depression, the area attracted African Americans migrating from the South in search for a better life and finding themselves in a segregated city. In the early 1940s, local leaders tried to address African-American ghettoes by building housing projects on the North Side for low-income blacks, including the infamous Pruitt-Igoe. They became overcrowded, low-income, high-crime high-rises.

McCormack Baron Salazar stepped into the neighborhood and replaced some of the crumbling vertical public housing with mixed-income low-rise housing, including O’Fallon Place Apartments, the St. Louis Brewery Apartments and the George L. Vaughn Residences at Murphy Park.

Founded in 1978, Urban Strategies worked with its parent developer to build safe neighborhoods, strong schools and comprehensive human services in the areas where McCormack Baron Salazar was building developments and community infrastructure.

The neighborhood organizations have also pushed to get government and private investments to renovate Jefferson Elementary School and reopen a full-service community health clinic managed by Grace Hill Neighborhood Centers.

The missing piece was an early childhood center.

“This community has waited a long time,” Moore said. “We started talking to them about this about eight years ago. Many of them have almost given up on us.”


$11 million facility

Right now, the site of the future $11-million facility is an empty, grassy lot blocked off by tall fences. Murphy Park mixed-income housing surrounds the lot on three sides. On the last side is the Cahill House Senior Living facility, and across the street is the Grace Hill Courtney Clinic.

Before physician and community supporter I. Jerome Flance died at age 98 in 2010, he helped the Flance Center’s planning team to develop a program that would address the healthy development of children.

About half of the financial capital comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Two years ago, the St. Louis Housing Authority applied on the neighborhood’s behalf for the Capital Fund Education and Training Community Facilities Program. HUD received 94 submissions and only awarded 10 housing authority grants. HUD awarded the center’s proposal with $5 million.

McCormack Baron Salazar will chip in with $3 million of New Market Tax Credits, which are designed to strengthen the infrastructure of urban communities.

For the remainder of the money, Richard Baron, co-founder and CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, and Moore fundraised among interested donors.

“If we want to see improved outcomes among low-income children,” said Moore, “there needs to be stable housing so they have inviting houses to live in – and we need to create a new pathway from pregnancy to health and learning.”


The center

The center will include a three-room health suite that connects to Grace Hill, which will provide onsite immunizations and quick health screenings. Every child and their family has a health-provider link right across the street. The center will also have a living room area, where families can have group meetings and various community events, as well as a community and industrial kitchen.

“The idea is to grow food in the garden to provide healthy meals, and it is intended to bring childcare givers from the community together,” Moore said.

Moore said the organization tapped the University City Children’s Center, a United Way-funded agency, to operate the center because of its nationally acclaimed education and training programs. People providing childcare in their homes will be invited to come over for training and peer-to-peer interaction.

“This center will be open for every kind of educator and care giver of babies to take part and learn about cutting-edge strategies,” Moore said. “Others will be invited for play dates and to give their providers rest. Some of the distress that happened in daycare centers because everyone needs a break.”

“These aspects of the center are all about strengthening the northern corridor for children and babies,” Moore said. “That doesn’t exist on the North Side of the city.”