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Free preschool program must find a new Charlotte home

Pre-K teacher Vanessa Goodwin works with Kimberly Colin-Estrada, left, and Riley Tillman, center, on a computer at The Learning Collaborative on Tuesday.
Pre-K teacher Vanessa Goodwin works with Kimberly Colin-Estrada, left, and Riley Tillman, center, on a computer at The Learning Collaborative on Tuesday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Learning Collaborative, a tuition-free preschool for low-income families, is in need of a new home after being told its headquarters on North Davidson Street is being absorbed by the Johnston YMCA for other children’s programming.

TLC is being given until June 2016 to move, but agency officials say they’re fast coming to the conclusion that finding a new home will require more time because of structural and funding restrictions. Among those restrictions: TLC must remain within the city’s low-income ZIP codes or risk losing the grants that pay for the program.

That means the agency might have to build a new site, which is something TLC can’t afford at this time, said Ariana Shahinfar, board chairwoman of TLC.

She is concerned about the survival of the program, and some of those who helped raise money for the current building say they don’t understand why the YMCA can’t figure out a way for TLC to stay.

“They (the YMCA) warned us in November 2013 and giving us that much warning would seem to be reasonable,” Shahinfar said.

“But when you consider how difficult it is finding space appropriate for preschoolers, it may not be enough time. We are restricted to high-need areas of poverty, where kids are at risk of entering school unprepared for academic and social success.”

The agency would prefer to stay where it is, she said, but is not being given that option.

TLC, founded 27 years ago, is a nonprofit program that has helped at-risk preschoolers improve their skills for school, bringing them closer to the level of more advantaged children across the country.

Sixty-four low-income children from surrounding areas are enrolled, including many from the Grier Heights community in east Charlotte. The program requires parents to be involved, making for a total of 150 people served by TLC.

The building TLC is being asked to leave is one with a complicated history, having been built with community donations for a specific use: helping at-risk children from low-income families. Past tenants of the building include Thompson Child & Family Focus.

The building is managed and owned by the Johnston YMCA, but was built in 1996 with money donated by the Charlotte Junior League ($700,000), Thompson Child and Family Focus ($250,000), and a community fundraising effort called Success By 6.

Because of more than a decade of renovations and development in the NoDa and Plaza Midwood areas, some of those who supported the initial construction have expressed concerns that the YMCA may not continue to focus on low-income kids after TLC moves out.

“Because of gentrification, the kids in the neighborhood are not as at-risk as they were 20 years go,” said Robin Branstrum, who was chairwoman of the effort to raise money for the building in the 1990s.

“Things change and neighborhoods evolve. I’m not sure what can be done unless some kind of scholarship is developed for the kids who can’t afford the (YMCA) program.”

But YMCA officials say the building will continue to be used for low-income children, despite the rising affluence in surrounding neighborhoods.

Among the programs it plans: a day camp, an after-school program and a holiday camp. In addition, the YMCA says it is developing plans for preschool, elementary-age and parent-child programming. Some will be daylong, making it tough to share the site, officials said.

The YMCA says it needs the space because programs in its building on North Davidson Street are at capacity and have waiting lists. The day camp has grown from 40 children to 250 in three years, and the after-school program has jumped from 19 to 75, YMCA officials said.

“We currently serve children in our camps and after-school programs who come from the surrounding neighborhoods. ... About 90 percent of our participants are receiving the Y’s financial assistance. Also, 90 percent receive free and reduced lunch at school,” said Molly Thompson of the YMCA.

“The demand for our enrichment programs and the need for assistance is growing … and we are preparing for significant growth when the light rail opens in the area.”

John Tate, who was also part of the effort to create the building, said he is disappointed that the YMCA can’t share the space with TLC.

TLC takes up about 70 percent of the building during the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ 10-month school year. The other 30 percent is used by YMCA staff, TLC officials said.

TLC pays $3,750 monthly to lease the building, which Tate questions as fair, given it was underwritten by money from donors.

“I am really torn that the Y has not found a way for TLC to stay,” Tate said. “The challenge before TLC is to find alternate space even close to what they enjoy now. It is a formidable obstacle. I would say a virtually impossible one, short of a giant sugar daddy emerging from the blue.”

Price: 704-358-5245

How to help?

The Learning Collaborative is seeking donations to pay for a new home. To help, contact: Shannon McKnight at smcknight@tlccharlotte.org or call 704-377-8076.

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