By Sally Mackin, Executive Director, Woodlawn Foundation
It’s ironic that the James Rushton Early Learning and Family Success Center in Birmingham, Alabama’s Woodlawn neighborhood is inside of a bank building that has been vacant for more than 20 years – because the children who crawl, toddle and walk down these bright hallways are now on a path designed to guide them from here to college, and to build wealth and fulfillment throughout their lifetimes.
Woodlawn was once a thriving neighborhood, but like so many other urban communities, it fell victim to blight as people moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, leaving underperforming schools and low-income jobs behind. The people who stayed have held on to many of the qualities which made this historic area unique, but they have struggled to ensure that ALL children in the community realize the promise of a life with less struggle. Following the Purpose Built Communities Model of high-quality cradle-to-college education pipeline, housing for people at a variety of income levels and resources to support healthy living and community wellness, the Woodlawn Foundation serves as the community quarterback here, coordinating with a multitude of organizations and leaders to break the cycle of poverty. As we invested in refurbishing homes, building new affordable housing and bringing a new educational model, partnerships and resources to the existing schools in the neighborhood, engaging families with very young children emerged as an important next step. Recently, The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB’s) Center for Educational Accountability surveyed area parents, and the results were clear: there was a shortage of safe, high-quality affordable early learning in Woodlawn.
Quality, local early childhood education is critical to the process of climbing the economic ladder. Those who only have access to sub-standard care are losing the opportunity for academic and social gains that can only be seized when children are very young. Parents who have to drive their children to far-away centers lose work time and bear high transportation costs. This horrible dilemma faces parents across the country every day.
For several years, local activist and leader Deak Rushton ran a small early education program, but he wanted to do more. He acknowledged that the children he was reaching were leaving for kindergarten, and he had no way of knowing if their early learning experiences were making a difference. His family foundation and the Woodlawn Foundation came together around the shared goal of serving more children and integrating early learning into the local education pipeline.
It didn’t take long for many people to come together toward this purpose. Local leaders volunteered their time to coordinate the ambitious project. Early learning experts informed every decision. And the two foundations collaborated to raise $7.2 million of public and private funds to build the Center. In May 2017, the James Rushton I Foundation and the Woodlawn Foundation cut the ribbon opening this state-of-the-art, 16,000 square foot facility that educates children ages six weeks to four years old. The 100 children who come here will have access to the best experiences that early learning models can offer as well as healthy food, outdoor recreation and connections to the K-12 education structure they will later encounter.
Purposeful early childhood education has been shown to have long-term benefits – from socio-emotional development during school-age years to improved health and well-being as adults. Building this beautiful new center took strong partnerships, passionate community members and dedicated leaders. Now we know how high we can go when we work together, and that we all benefit when we offer new opportunities to the youngest members of our community.