After years of pushing plans and raising funds, Gainesville For All (GNV4ALL) is preparing to open the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center on Aug. 10. The early childhood development facility will service children aged six weeks to five years.
The center is designed to serve children from Gainesville bordered inside 39th Ave., Waldo Road, 16th Ave. and 9th Street, who are failing in the public school system, according to James Lawrence, director of GNV4ALL. Lawrence said when these children reach kindergarten, many do not know their letters and numbers.
“The research has been in for decades, the value of early learning,” Lawrence said in a phone interview. “But the reality is that poor people don’t have access to that.”
GNV4ALL’s new center will offer high quality curriculum and staff, Lawrence said. The center has already received a license from the Florida Department of Children and Families after meeting the “stringent requirements” for what Lawrence called “a huge, huge hurdle.”
Though the family learning center’s building on the campus of Metcalfe Elementary School can accommodate 128 children, the center will have a maximum capacity of 87 students to maintain a ratio of no more than four children to every staff member. GNV4ALL is currently hiring 20 to 22 staff positions. Employees will be offered health insurance and retirement benefits and teacher training will begin around Aug. 1.
As staff works with the children to prepare them for kindergarten by reading to them, teaching fine motor skills and teaching letters and numbers, the center will also offer parent coaching. Lawrence said the family is a priority that must be addressed to make a systemic change.
“It’s not that [the children] are not smart enough, not intelligent enough,” Lawrence said. “It’s their environment. And oftentimes, so many of the parents just don’t have the wherewithal for even parenting.”
From its foundation in 2016, GNV4ALL recommended systemic changes, including an early childhood learning center, to community leaders in nonprofit, business, and government sectors, according to Lawrence. Two years in, when no one had moved to create a facility, GNV4ALL set out to fill the gap.
The center’s creation has benefited from many contributions. The City of Gainesville and Alachua County each donated $350,000 to the family learning center, and the school board provided the building through a free lease. GNV4ALL has raised over a million dollars from various individual and corporate donors, Lawrence said.
GNV4ALL has delayed the Gainesville Empowerment Zone’s grand opening until October after $100,000 of playground equipment has arrived.
Angela Walker, the center’s director, said she looks forward to seeing children and families start to thrive after tapping into GNV4ALL’s resources. She said she wants to build on what parents are already doing to help their children close the achievement gap.
“I want to be able to hear next year that oh, these children must have come from Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center, because they’re ready,” Walker said in a phone call.
Walker said she also wants to help prepare the parents for the public school system so they know what questions to ask and can carry over things like an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), into their child’s first year of school. Currently, Walker said when preschools determine an IEP for a child, the school they go to for kindergarten often reopens the case to determine the need, sometimes letting a full school year go by before the child gets the help.
The family learning center is a demonstration project, according to Lawrence. He said GNV4ALL is trying to set an example of what can be done when an organization partners with the family, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, the government sector, and offers teachers the right benefits.
“We’re very cognizant of everything that we’re trying to make here, because we’re going to be under a spotlight,” Lawrence said. “The work really starts once we open those doors.”
Parents interested in touring or enrollment can visit gnv4all.org, email email@example.com, or call the office at 352-225-3931. The Early Learning Coalition (ELC) will cover most of the cost for students who meet income requirements, along with income-based contributions from parents. More information can be found on the ELC website in the VPK and School Readiness tabs.