Childhood center a boon to Gentilly community

There were dinosaur toys on the shelves, building blocks on the tables and a finger painting extravaganza ambitious enough to warm Jackson Pollock’s heart.

A troop of bubbly 3-year-olds played dress-up, switching between the garb of ship captains and doctors. One of them pressed a plastic stethoscope to Gerry Barrouse’s heart.

“Do you hear a heartbeat in there?” he asked.

Barrouse grinned. He had popped into the new Educare early childhood center in Columbia Parc to lead a tour of the facility, which will be introduced to the public Thursday.

The 27,000-square-foot school, which opened Oct. 1 and cost $9 million to build, is a major addition to the mixed-income complex, the site of the former St. Bernard housing project in Gentilly after Hurricane Katrina.

It’s also part of a growing movement that recognizes early childhood as a crucial time in emotional and intellectual development, during which children in low-income families often fall far behind their peers.

The year-round center serves 150 children between the ages of 6 weeks to 5 years old.

“If you get them to kindergarten on-grade, their chances for later success are dramatically improved,” said Barousse, who as chairman of the board for the Bayou District Foundation helped spearhead both the Columbia Parc development and the new early childhood center.

Barousse said the philosophy behind the development of Columbia Parc, which spans 18 blocks and has 685 units and 2,000 residents, is to provide a constellation of housing, recreation and education opportunities.

When deciding what type of school to build, the group was introduced to Educare, a national organization started by Warren Buffett’s daughter, Susan. The group has established 19 early childhood centers throughout the country.

Sensing it was a good fit, the Bayou District Foundation joined with the group to cobble together funds to build the school.

Approximately $3 million came from the Housing Authority of New Orleans, $2 million from Educare and the rest from a mixture of philanthropy and new market tax credits.

The school is operated by Kingsley House, an education- and community-building nonprofit that has been a longtime facilitator of early education programs.

Barrouse said he believes the center is the premier early childhood facility in the city.

It has 11 classrooms, in addition to an industrial-size kitchen, a teachers lobby and workspace and offices for nurses, social workers and other members of the 50-person staff.

Students are divided into two sections, 6 weeks to 3 years old and 4 to 5 years old.

Each class is staffed by three employees; master teachers supervise from offices with windows that allow them a direct view of each classroom.

According to Rafel Heart, the school’s principal, students are selected from an application process and must be below certain income levels to qualify.

There are 28 students at the school from the Columbia Parc area and many more from elsewhere in Gentilly, Heart said.

Heart said parents pay only a nominal fee to the state, somewhere between $5 and $15 per month, and the school already has close to 200 kids on its waiting list.

He added that the school’s low student-to-teacher ratio, which is approximately 6-1, means kids get plenty of individual attention that helps them not only to develop learning skills, such as number and letter recognition, but also to evolve emotionally.

“It really teaches cooperation and empathy,” Heart said.

He said the students learn together, play together and even eat together in a way that mimics relationships they would have with siblings.

Heart and Barousse said the true results of the school will be visible 15 years down the line, when the students they are teaching today will be heading off to college.

In the meantime, the Bayou District Foundation is in the midst of planning for an adjacent kindergarten-through-eighth grade charter school, which should break ground next year.

Barousse said the hope is that the new facilities will help create a flourishing Columbia Parc community.

As he guided a tour of the school, he pointed out the tawny brick facade of one of three buildings within the facility that were repurposed from the former housing project, vestiges of a past that seems distant amidst the sparkling, modern classrooms.

Giselle Scott, who teaches 4- and 5-year-olds at the school, said the new school sends an important message.

“The physical requirement reflects the children’s environment,” she said. “It shows the kids and the parents that they’re important.”