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Gray opens center for early childhood education

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D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray unveiled an early childhood education center east of the Anacostia River on Thursday that serves as the keystone of his aggressive effort to stimulate the minds of children in their first years, preparing them for kindergarten and beyond.

The 32,000-square-foot Educare facility in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood offers year-round Head Start and Early Head Start programs on weekdays to children from 6 weeks to 4 years old. Educare began enrollment in July and is ramping up to about 175 students and 65 teachers, with three teachers per classroom, executive director Carol Howard said.

D.C. officials argue the first several years of a child's life are considered the most important for brain development and should ensure greater success in later grades. Early childhood education programs, therefore, prepare children for kindergarten and success into adulthood.

The state-of-the-art, $12 million school was funded by Educare's partners and sits on federal land that the District controls and leases to Educare for $1, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. Its ribbon cutting drew about 100 attendees, among them council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, and former Mayor Anthony A. Williams, both of whom echoed Mr. Gray's pitch for early childhood education.

Mr. Gray said Educare's mission is part of broader civic goals, from improved health care to affordable housing, to revamp development from the moment children leave the cradle — or even before.

"Many of you have heard me say that if I could get a fetus into a program, I would," he said to laughter in a crowded reception room. "But I'm absolutely serious."

Late last year, education officials in Mr. Gray's Cabinet signaled they were working with D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education to figure out which organizations could serve as effective partners and how much financial assistance the city can give to the programs. Around the same time, the president of the National Education Association told The Washington Times it is "absolutely critical" to stimulate the minds of children before they enter school.

The mayor punctuated the trend at his State of the District in March 2011, when he noted the Educare center had broken ground in Northeast "and what we learn will inform other early childhood services across the city."

Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright said the ribbon-cutting on Thursday marked the first tangible step in those efforts and is especially significant because it serves a community in the city's eastern wards.

An emphasis on wards 7 and 8 — where the unemployment rate reaches well into the double digits — has been a focal point of the Gray administration, marked by the unveiling of modernized schools and ambitious plans for development on the eastern side of the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus. The eastern wards also serve as the backdrop for many of the mayor's press briefings and major announcements.

Mr. Gray, who lives in the Hillcrest section of Ward 7, said he visited the Educare site 10 to 20 times during its construction.

"I wanted to make sure of what was going on here and that we got to the finish line in the way that we promised," he said.

When he was D.C. Council chairman, Mr. Gray pushed legislation in 2008 that expanded the city's educational offerings to 3- and 4-year-olds, coinciding with a national trend to serve students before they reach kindergarten. The pre-K offerings became popular and have been cited as part of the reason why some parents from neighboring states sneak their children into D.C. schools without paying tuition.

While Mr. Gray continues to tout early childhood offerings, he also made an impassioned pitch for his strategy to extend the school year. He has pushed the concept in recent months and announced grants that will allow some schools to try out an extended school-day in the coming year.

"I have youth town hall meetings every month, and I raised this, expecting the children to come at me," Mr. Gray said. "They did not. Believe it or not, they actually supported it. All they said was, 'If we're going to be in school longer, make it interesting.' "

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