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Ready to learn
Early Learning Center for disadvantaged tots becomes a reality
School and community officials along with students from the inagural class of the Early Learning Center help cut the ribbon at the Center's official opening Aug. 28 - photo by James Dinsmoor/Submitted photo

Rockdale recently celebrated its latest investment in the future of the county with the grand opening of the Early Learning Center, housed at the Rockdale Career Academy, on Aug. 28.

More than 50 officials, parents, educators and students packed into the brightly colored rooms of the Early Learning Center’s to mark officially the realization of the three-and-a-half year project of the school system.

"This is a sigh of relief moment," said Rich Autry, chief academic officer for Rockdale County Public Schools. "You really get goose bumps knowing that it has actually come to fruition."

The Center, which began with a soft opening six weeks ago with 56 students and six staff member, is designed to help 3- and 4- year olds from lower socioeconomic households be prepared to learn when they enter kindergarten.

Clair Cline, the local director of the Rockdale County United Way, pointed out, "The first four years of a child’s life is when the brain is maturing the most. This is the time that sets learning patterns for children to be successful as they grow into youth, teens and adults," she said. "Every $1 invested in early learning saves $17 in remediation and adjudication."

The center is part of a wider Early Learning Initiative sponsored by the United Way and is funded by a combination of three different grants – a federal Family Literacy Grant of $238,000, a Smart Start United Way grant of $97,000 over three years and part of the funds from the $4.7 million federal Safer Schools grant. The program was initially opened to families participating in the Parents as Teachers program, which targets lower-income households.

Parents as Teachers program educator Crystal Gutierrez said, "One of the huge misconceptions is that parents think that they don’t have to teach the children anything because the schools are going to teach them everything. From birth, they’re going to learn and everything we teach them plays a big part of their successes in school and after in life."

Jesseca Causey, the Center’s director, said she couldn’t wait to show the data from the improvements in students in the first six weeks. "The academic gains we have seen and the social gains and the emotional gains have been absolutely tremendous… I truly credit the staff for this," she said.

The Center, which was built upon the existing early learning program at the Career Academy, uses a Reggio Emilia approach, which is art intensive, and teaches all their students in English, Spanish and American Sign Language.

"Everything’s going better than I expected. I was really nervous about the language barrier. We always talk about diversity in education, but we’re really doing it. Everything that I’ve learned and heard in workshops is actually taking place."

Autry, at the ribbon cutting, said that without the Center, many of these families would not have had such opportunities. "The bottom line is we’ve got a better prepared student when they enter kindergarten."