By Dedra Cordle
A one-of-a-kind childhood education center is preparing to open its doors to future young learners living on the westside.
On Dec. 12, city officials, county commissioners, local business leaders, and community advocates gathered to celebrate the completion of construction at the Hilltop Early Learning Center with a special ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Located at 45 Clarendon Ave., the $22-million pre-kindergarten learning facility that was partially funded by a voter-approved bond issue features a dozen classrooms and a variety of wraparound services that will benefit not just the children enrolled at the center, but their families and the greater community as well.
“This 50,000-square-foot structure is a powerful realization of a shared community vision that all children deserve access to opportunity, education, and support,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther during the ceremony.
Free to those living 300 percent below the poverty level, which equates to an income of $54,930 for a household of two (e.g. one caregiver, one child) or an income of $83,250 for a household of four (e.g. one caregiver, three children or two caregivers, two children), the center will be open five days a week, year-round to host more than 200 young learners looking to get an early start on their path to life-long success.
Among those who have already enrolled their young learner at the center is Jonie Johnson, a childhood education advocate who works at a nearby school.
“He keeps asking me when he’ll be able to get to go,” she said. “I am so excited because he is so excited about this opportunity. It’s not always that you get to have a child or care for a child who is so ready to go learn and at such a young age.”
As the caretaker to her two young grandchildren, Johnson and the two boys got a sneak-peek at the facility when they attended a city-sponsored Family Fun Day in late October.
While there, she asked the then 4-year-old Isaac Price Jr. his thoughts on the center and she received two very enthusiastic thumbs up.
“I think it was love at first sight when he caught a glimpse of that magnificent indoor play area,” she said, referring to the expansive nature-based play structure that features slides, swings, sensory panels and a climbing wall.
Johnson said she too fell in love with the place when she toured the facility and spoke to the staff who will be working there when it opens this winter.
“Isaac has asthma and knowing that he is going to be attending a child care facility that has a healthcare clinic inside of it with nurses who know how to handle his medication and work with him when he has attacks just put me completely at ease,” she said. “It means a lot to have this kind of facility here because it means I don’t really have to worry as much about him getting the care and attention that he needs.”
One of the most unique features at the Hilltop Early Learning Center is the 3,000-square-foot healthcare clinic that will be operated by staff with Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Not only will they be able to treat upset stomachs and the occasional bloody knee, but they will also be able to provide mental health services, physical support services, screening services and wellness checks. Most services will also be available to families who do not have children enrolled at the center.
“When we started this project, we didn’t just want it to be a site for early childhood education although that is at the heart of our mission,” said Dr. Gina Ginn, CEO of the Columbus Early Learning Centers. “We also wanted to be able to provide families with the tools that are needed to be successful.”
For instance, Ginn said the center will have a fully stocked food pantry for the families and the greater community to access. Most of the goods will be donated by Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, who will also distribute a bag of food monthly to families whose children are enrolled at the Hilltop Early Learning Center.
“We not only want to surround our children with the tools to be successful in school and beyond, but we also want that success to be extended to our families and the community we serve.”
Hilltop Early Learning Center officials say they hope the facility will be able to open its doors to the area’s future young learners this winter, preferably sometime in January.
“We are still waiting to obtain our license from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, but once we do, we will be up and running and ready to serve 240 young learners on the westside,” said Ginn.
Like so many others, Hilltop Partnership Director Paula Neal said she is counting down the days until they can welcome in their first pre-kindergarten class.
“I have spent so much time in this building throughout the construction process and the end result is absolutely beautiful but it needs to be awakened,” she said. “Having the children here is going to do that, as will all of the families that this center will serve.”
To see more information on the Hilltop Early Learning Center, including how to enroll your child at the facility or how to access its other services, visit hilltopearlylearning.org.