CLEARWATER — Opening day for the first pre-kindergarten center in the Pinellas County School District has been pushed back yet again.
The Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, scheduled to open in January, now won’t until August, school district officials said. Originally, the center originally was supposed to open at the beginning of the school year this past August. Issues with the construction of the center, weather complications, funding responsibilities and, most recently, the ability for teachers to transition to a new job mid-school year, all have been blamed for the delays.
“We’re eager to open the center because we know the value it will bring to early learning in Pinellas,” Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego said in an emailed statement. “However, since this center was first envisioned, all the parties involved have maintained that quality is more important than speed. We want it done right.”
Pushing the start date to August should make it easier for students to enroll without having to change care centers in the middle of the school year. The hope is that opening in August instead of January will give staff time to participate in the summer professional development courses offered by the school district, as well as establish curricula, processes and procedures for the center, said Rita Farlow, communications coordinator for the school district, in an emailed release.
“Another reason for a timeline shift is that if any of our current employees apply, we don’t want to pull them out of the classroom right now in the middle of the school year,” School Board member Peggy O’Shea said. “This is atypical of anything we’ve ever done before ... so we need enough time to transition.”
The center will open in a renovated space at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers’ St. Petersburg campus, and is a collaborative effort with the Early Learning Coalition, Head Start, the R’Club and the Juvenile Welfare Board. School Board members already have approved job postings for the instructors and others that will run the center, and School Board member Rene Flowers said opportunities could be available for students enrolled in early-childhood programs at PTEC and Gibbs High School to get hands-on experience and training.
Named after a former School Board member who died in Dec. 2011, the center will provide day care and educational programs to children between the ages of 1 and 4 living in poverty. School district officials estimated that initially the center will offer eight classrooms for about 100 students.
The need for the program is huge, Grego said.
A recent study by the JWB and the school district found that last school year nearly 40 percent of children entering kindergarten in Pinellas weren’t academically ready and fell behind in classes. There already are waiting lists for the JWB’s three newest early learning centers in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, which hold 55 to 58 children each.
“It’s a remarkable feat to have all of these players at the table for the first collaboration of its kind in Pinellas,” Grego said in an emailed statement. “What is particularly exciting is that once the challenges are met, we will have created a model that can be duplicated for future collaborations.”