After several delays, Educare of West DuPage finally breaks ground Thursday on a $10 million, state-of-the-art preschool in West Chicago.
"It's been four years since we started this journey," said Superintendent Ed Leman of West Chicago Elementary District 33. "So (we're) glad to have it open."
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The school will serve 150 children ages 5 and younger who are at risk of falling behind when they reach kindergarten.
Educare of West DuPage is being built across the park from District 33's Pioneer Elementary School, which has the highest percentage of low-income students of any elementary school in DuPage County.
Construction of the light-filled, 24,000-square-foot building is expected to take slightly less than a year.
"We're going to be a place that puts into practice and puts on display everything that research says is needed to help disadvantaged, at-risk kids to succeed in kindergarten as well as their middle-class peers," said Theresa Hawley, chairwoman of Educare of West DuPage's board of directors.
In West Chicago, 25 percent of children 5 and younger live in poverty.
The road to today's groundbreaking had a few bumps. The first site was scrapped after neighbors raised concerns about Educare's septic system and well plans.
After a second site was chosen, the city's plan commission unexpectedly voted to deny the rezoning request and special use permit, although the action was overturned by the city council.
And organizers faced one of the most difficult fundraising environments in recent years.
Educare of West DuPage is funded by public and private donors in an innovative partnership. It will be the first suburban school in Educare's nationwide network.
Educare is paying to build and operate the school. District 33 paid for the land and improvements and will provide ongoing building maintenance.
The Educare model is a full-day, year-round program with classes taught by teachers with bachelor's degrees. Parents are required to be involved and accountable.
An independent evaluation found that children who enroll in Educare between birth and age 2 enter kindergarten better prepared than the national average for all children, Educare reports. They also score better in vocabulary and social skills.
The new building will have 12 classrooms, an indoor gym, a training center for early childhood teachers from throughout the Western suburbs, a library and resource center for parents and a meeting space.
"It's built for young kids, so everything is down to their level," Hawley said. The building will be LEED-certified with a focus on energy-efficiency and healthy indoor air.
The groundbreaking comes not long after District 33 announced it can't afford to offer preschool for at-risk children next fall unless the state funding situation improves. District 33 will still provide a state-mandated program for children needing special education services.
"It's a serious loss," Leman said. "(Preschool) is a very significant leg up for many kids and without it, it will impact their education and our achievement."
The need is great, Leman said. In past years, the district served 460 preschoolers in its at-risk and special education preschool programs, "And we weren't serving all that were eligible," he said.