City DopeNews

New CCSD Early Learning Center Is Now Open on the Eastside

After housing hundreds of students while their home schools were renovated or replaced, a former elementary building has gone through its own transformation. The 1960s-era Gaines Elementary is now an early learning center, filled with children from 8 weeks to 4 years old. 

The playground at the Eastside Early Learning Center has yet to be installed, but the classrooms are filled with pint-sized chairs and tables, perfect for little children. Most of the walls are covered with pictures of animals, numbers and letters, all in bright, primary colors. There are toys and books. It’s a happy place.

In the state lottery-funded pre-K program are 210 children, with room for 250. Karen Higginbotham, director of early learning for the Clarke County School District, says she expects those 40 seats to be filled soon.

Two federal programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, also serve children from low-income families in the Early Learning Center East and in the center on the H.T. Edwards campus. Cribs and changing tables indicate the classrooms are for Early Head Start, which cares for children 8 weeks to 2 years old. Each early learning center has 11 classrooms with eight children in Early Head Start.  

Both schools have four classrooms serving 17 Head Start students. Some of those children are in special education, receiving extra, individualized attention. On staff is a full-time speech pathologist.

“We want people to know that we don’t provide day care; it’s early learning,” Higginbotham said. Children learn about negotiating in a social setting, self-care and self-regulation, how to share and how to be a good sport, among other skills like numbers and colors and letters. “Kids are struggling because of the pandemic,” according to Higgenbotham.

The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. For after-school care, pre-K children in the Eastside Early Learning Center can take buses to Gaines Elementary. From H.T. Edwards, they can go to Alps Elementary or Chase Street Elementary. Daycare centers like Bright Beginnings also pick up and care for children until their caretakers arrive.

The school district also has a home-based program. Specialists spend 90 minutes visiting each home, teaching parents how to extend language, for example, and linking them to other programs in the Athens community, like the Athens Diaper Bank. 

Superintendent Xernona Thomas pushed to repurpose old Gaines as an early learning center after plans for the also-vacant West Broad School fell through, leaving the district at risk of losing a $15 million federal grant. Higginbotham said the county could easily fill another early learning center with children, perhaps on the far west side of the county.