In their navy blue and gold uniforms, 400 students entered the new K-5 Renaissance West STEAM Academy on the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina on a fall morning in 2017. This day was the first of many designed to get the students on a new trajectory to “Soar Higher” – the school’s official motto.
For the administrators, teachers, parents and community leaders who made this school a reality, that was a good day. But, those experts and visionaries had an even bigger plan. They knew that opportunity for academic achievement begins the day a child is born. And so almost concurrently, the Howard Levine Child Development Center was built to provide quality, affordable education and childcare in the neighborhood. It opened its doors in February 2018 with space for 152 children ages 0-5.
The construction of the Howard Levine Child Development Center was funded by the Charlotte Housing Authority and capital campaign donations from many, including former Family Dollar Stores CEO Howard R. Levine. Renaissance West Community Initiative, the Purpose Built Communities Network Member and community quarterback in this part of west Charlotte, spearheaded the efforts to bring these much-needed educational resources to the community.
Charlotte is ranked at the very top of national ratings for low opportunity for economic mobility among the top 50 metropolitan areas in the United States. Despite the odds that this represents, Renaissance West Community Initiative is leading the revitalization of the former Boulevard Homes public housing site into a vibrant community with mixed-income housing, health and wellness services and commercial investment, along with educational opportunities and youth and adult development programs.
“Our children face many obstacles that children in other neighborhoods may not face on a daily basis,” said Mack McDonald, chief executive officer of Renaissance West. “We are making important progress toward improving people’s lives through family strengthening and providing access to a quality education and early learning.”
Despite the clear demand for quality childcare, the Levine Center has not yet reached capacity. Affordability is an issue for some. Subsidies provide tuition assistance, yet there are eligibility restrictions. In order to qualify, a parent or guardian must have a job or be in an approved workforce development training program. Sometimes this causes a vicious cycle; many parents cannot get a job without having affordable childcare. Renaissance West is working to find creative solutions to break this cycle.
Neighborhood families are eager for the kind of childcare the Levine Center offers. “I could find daycare and babysitters anywhere, but it is very hard to find a daycare center that is going to educate,” said resident and parent Kimberly Catel. “It [the Levine Center] is affordable, and I can actually go back to work full time now.”
The YMCA of Greater Charlotte will operate and provide the programming for the Levine Center, which will also feature a space designed to offer early childhood education training to practitioners in the Center and beyond. Available speech therapy, a full-time nurse and a family support manager will address the needs of children and their families to create a supportive learning environment.
Renaissance West is celebrating these new facilities, but their work is far from done. It is clear that providing other resources including mental health services, tutoring, aftercare, and access to job training is essential to supporting healthy families. “The school principal does home visits with students and parents, and she often discovers needs beyond what can be provided in a classroom setting,” said Jamese Pinkston, Community Engagement Officer for Renaissance West. “Many children don’t have basic necessities – which means they come to school burdened with problems that affect their ability to learn.”
Renaissance West is now pivoting from buildings to programs – and the community is responding. Plans for a wide range of services are underway, including leveraging community volunteers to read in classrooms or serve as lunch buddies in the schools. Volunteers provide mentoring and expose young people to a wide range of careers while also engaging adults from the broader community.
“We are so privileged to be a part of helping this neighborhood become the best it can be, and I know that with hard work, commitment, partnership and time, children and families will thrive,” McDonald said.