Learning Community Center of North Omaha welcomes first kids

January 14, 2015

Omaha World-Herald
By Joe Dejka

Lots of big VIPs turned out for the official opening of the Learning Community Center of North Omaha Wednesday morning, but the littlest VIPs stole the show.

After six years of planning, the center finally has kids inside.

Some of them joined in the opening ceremonies, spelling out the word F-A-M-I-L-Y in big, colorful letters inside picture frames coated with jig-saw puzzle pieces.

It was symbolic of what the Learning Community backers hope to accomplish from the new 20,000-square-foot center at 24th and Franklin Streets in north Omaha: working closely with parents, children and early-childhood educators to improve the life chances of some of metro Omaha’s poorest kids.

And doing it together, with everyone playing a part.

Khai’rei is in his second year of preschool at Conestoga Elementary School, which along with Kellom Elementary School has used Learning Community money to enhance early-childhood classes."For the families that need it, this building’s going to be really great," said Jamie Mattan, whose 4-year-old son Khai’rei placed the letter "Y" in its place.

Mattan, who grew up in north Omaha, said she has another boy at home, 1-year-old Jaylen, whom she would love to enroll in the Educare-run early childhood classrooms inside the center.

The ceremony comes as there are moves afoot to alter or eliminate the Learning Community, which lawmakers set up in 2007 to halt school district border fights, administer an open-enrollment system and launch programs to help poor students in Douglas, Sarpy and part of Washington counties.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he would like to do away with the entity. A proposal floated by metro-area school districts would eliminate its controversial common property tax levy, which was intended to aid property-poor districts, but preserve the maximum 1.5-cent levy imposed on property in the 11 districts, which pays for the new center, its programs and others.

Ted Stilwill, chief executive officer of the 11-district Learning Community, told the gathered crowd that the entity can narrow the achievement gap between poor and more affluent children if given a chance to work.

It may take years, but it’s "indisputable" that Learning Community’s research-based strategies of providing intensive support services to parents, child care providers and educators can be successful, Stilwill said.

Mayor Jean Stothert said the erection of the building is a "milestone." Stothert noted the coming Martin Luther King Day, quoting the slain civil rights leader as saying, "Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’"

David Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans spoke, emphasizing the importance of the Learning Community effort.

Toddlers were playing Wednesday in the center’s two early-childhood classrooms, with their itty-bitty potties and soft-surface outdoor playground. Video cameras allow college students in a separate room at the center to observe remotely and discretely the teaching going on as part of their preparation to become early childhood educators.

The center will serve as a hub for bringing services to the surrounding community, a key effort a parent engagement program, aimed at giving parents skills to help their kids succeed in school.

Initial estimates put construction costs at $4.6 million, though final numbers are still being tallied. The building also serves as the headquarters for the Learning Community, providing offices for its staff.

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