State and Council Bluffs Community School District officials broke ground Wednesday for construction of a 38,000-square-foot Early Learning Center that will house both preschool and childcare programs.
The $18 million center at North Eighth Street and Avenue F is expected to serve almost 200 children when it opens in August 2023.
“This marks another milestone in an innovative project to serve infants, toddlers and preschool students in one building,” Superintendent Vickie Murillo said.
She thanked Board of Education members, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo for their support, as well as private foundations and other donors.
“We are going to transform how we provide preschool and childcare in Council Bluffs,” Murillo said.
Diane Ostrowski, chief communications officer for the district, read a brief statement from Reynolds in which she congratulated the school district, community and private sources for working together to fund the project.
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“Your Early Learning Center will be an innovative model for serving children from birth to school age to (help them) be successful,” Reynolds said in the statement. “I am confident your efforts will strengthen your community for generations to come.”
Lebo, who spoke at the groundbreaking, called the project “transformational.” Combining early childhood education and childcare was a recommendation of the governor’s task force last fall, she said.
“We are excited to have you piloting this evidence-based project so we can scale this project statewide,” she said.
Lebo thanked Murillo and her team for their work on the project, the Council Bluffs Schools Foundation for its fundraising and the Iowa West Foundation and “many other foundations and donors” for making the project possible.
“What you are doing here truly represents a promising future for Iowa’s schools and families,” she said.
The school district will work with the Iowa Department of Education and a consultant from the Juniper Garden Project at the University of Kansas to create a model to demonstrate the impact and scalability of a public school district early learning center that serves infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh thanked school officials for having the foresight to propose the project.
“This really fills a need for childcare in a learning environment, and it provides early learning for students so they can go on and be successful,” he said.
Council Bluffs School Board President Chris LaFerla, who is also the executive director of the Council Bluffs Schools Foundation, thanked the Southwest Iowa Nonprofit for Collective Impact and other partners for their grants and contributions.
“This is a true example of a public-private partnership,” he said. “Everyone really recognizes the importance of learning and also the significant need for childcare. I don’t know how many realize that, over the last 10 years, we have lost half of our childcare providers.”
The school shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic showed how important access to childcare is to keeping people at work and keeping businesses operating, Lebo said following the ceremony.
“We are all interconnected,” she said.
The state has awarded Blended Early Learning in Educational Foundations grants to small, medium-size and large school districts to support districts working with community partners to develop plans to start evidence-based, customized early childcare and preschool programs for children under the age of 5.
In February, the Department of Education awarded competitive planning grants of up to $10,000 each to 16 public school districts to explore the development of blending childcare and quality early learning programs in their communities, according to a press release on the department’s website. Southwest Iowa districts awarded one-time BELIEF grants include Hamburg, Shenandoah and Woodbine Community School Districts. The grants are supported by funds the department received through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
Plans that are developed will be evaluated before the districts receive additional funding, Lebo said.
“These projects I believe are absolutely what the future should be of education in Iowa,” she said. “We know we can, and we know we need it.”
The Early Learning Center will provide preschool programming for 170 to 175 children and childcare for 25 to 30 infants and toddlers. The center will have 14 classrooms, including 11 for preschool, two for toddlers and one for infants. There will be large and small motor skills rooms, as well as three outdoor play areas.
The building will have a safety vestibule in the entry area, offices, a kitchen, teacher work rooms, storage rooms, a breastfeeding room and a multipurpose room that can be used for meetings, training or as a storm shelter.
The district currently offers preschool instruction in 32 classrooms in elementary schools throughout the district, but many children are on a waiting list to get into the program. The Early Learning Center will use the same curriculum and assessment tools as the district’s other preschool classrooms. The Highscope curriculum will be delivered by licensed teachers in age-appropriate class sizes.
In the preschool classrooms, there will be a teacher and a preschool assistant to serve 16 children. In the infant and toddler rooms, there will be eight to 12 children, depending on the age of those being served.
The contractor for the project is Midwest DCM of Omaha, which submitted the low bid of $14,300,490, including Alternate 3, heated floors for infant/toddler rooms; and Alternate 5, UV HVAC Upgrade. The bid was $864,311 less than the architect’s estimate of $15,164,801.
Besides construction, costs include land acquisition, site preparation, soil study and stabilization, professional fees, movable equipment and furnishings.
The project and a $2.24 million endowment will be paid for with a $7 million state grant, $5 million from the school district’s Secure an Advanced Vision for Education sales tax and Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, $4 million from an anonymous lead donor, a $1.04 million grant from the Iowa West Foundation, $1 million from another foundation, $100,000 from American National Bank, $100,000 from Dr. Behrouz and Christiane Rassekh and pledges from other private foundations and individuals.