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Preschool lands home in Grier Heights

Judy Carter, left, and Shannon McKnight as well as other leaders of The Learning Collaborative plan to purchase a shopping center for a new preschool in one of the most crime ridden parts of Grier Heights. Friday, July 10, 2015.
Judy Carter, left, and Shannon McKnight as well as other leaders of The Learning Collaborative plan to purchase a shopping center for a new preschool in one of the most crime ridden parts of Grier Heights. Friday, July 10, 2015. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

An ongoing battle to rid the unsettled Grier Heights area of its criminal element could get a boost from newly announced plans to replace one of its troubled spots with a preschool for low-income families.

The Learning Collaborative, a tuition-free preschool, says it intends to buy and take up permanent residence in a Grier Heights shopping center that police say has long been a magnet for lawbreakers in the area.

It is a mutually beneficial plan, with TLC facing a June 2016 deadline to vacate its current headquarters on property owned by the Johnston YMCA on North Davidson Street. The YMCA says it needs the space for children’s programming of its own.

TLC officials are working with the nonprofit CrossRoads Corp. in Grier Heights on raising the necessary $1.3 million to purchase and renovate the 8,060-square-foot shopping center near Randolph Road. To date, $350,000 in commitments have been received.

When completed, the new site will be about 1,000 square feet bigger than TLC’s current location, allowing for about 30 additional students per year, officials said.

The plan brings resolution to a challenge that some feared might end the 27-year-old preschool, which has come to symbolize the community’s commitment to helping low-income students. TLC leaders had been searching unsuccessfully for a suitable home since 2013, when the Johnston YMCA announced its plans.

CrossRoads and other Grier Heights community leaders say they have spent six years lobbying TLC to relocate to their neighborhood. One group of residents even raised $3,500 in June to put toward the cost. CrossRoads helped create and negotiate the shopping center idea.

A good, solid preschool program may be the biggest game changer we could add to Grier Heights.

Don Gately, CrossRoads executive director

“I am ecstatic about this,” said Don Gately, executive director of CrossRoads, which was founded in 2008 to help improve the quality of life for families living in Grier Heights area.

“A good, solid preschool program may be the biggest game changer we could add to Grier Heights. It will help the children and it will impact the neighborhood by taking this shopping center, with all its problems, out of the picture.”

Police say the shopping center on Sam Drenan Road (about three blocks east of Randolph Road) is a community hangout that also attracts drug dealers.

The shooting of a 14-year-old boy happened not far from the shopping center in February, and in January police and federal agents arrested a store operator in the shopping enter for allegedly swiping food stamp cards and keeping a portion of the money for himself. The site was also linked to a 2007 incident in which a car was stolen with an 8-year-old in the back seat. The child was left a block away, unharmed, police said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer John Frisk, a community coordinator for the Providence Division, said relocating the school to the site means tougher statutes will kick in for any drug dealers caught operating within 1,000 feet. He believes that will be a deterrent.

“That is going to help law enforcement. Our goal is to push drug dealers not only out of that area, but out of Grier Heights,” said Frisk. “Everybody who has grown up there in Grier Heights knows it ... It’s kind of an epicenter for the neighborhood where you can get it all: Go to the store, get a haircut and buy your weed.”

TLC officials say their plan is to evict all the tenants, including a church, a cellphone dealer and a barbershop.

“It is a place that does have a negative history, but we hope to change that,” said Ariana Shahinfar, chair of TLC board. “Our goal is for (parents) to no longer look at it as a dangerous part of the community, but a promising part of the community.”

Judy Carter, the executive director of TLC, says the school will institute measures to keep students safe, including a security system and fencing around a playground that will be installed behind the building. As for the loitering, she believes that will dissipate when all the stores close.

“We are concerned about safety at any location,” said Carter. “But you have to remember: This is the neighborhood where these families (of TLC students) live. It’s their home. And once the stores close, it will be nothing but their homes that surround us.”

The Learning Collaborative is required to remain within the city’s low-income ZIP codes or risk losing grants that pay for the program.

TLC learned in November 2013 that the YMCA on North Davidson Street would not renew its lease. A search for a replacement site has dragged on, because the preschool faces structural and funding restrictions, including a requirement that it remain within the city’s low-income ZIP codes or risk losing grants that pay for the program.

The agency helps at-risk preschoolers improve their skills for school, bringing them closer to the level of more advantaged children across the county. Its origins date back nearly three decades and include a merger of the Seigle Avenue Preschool Cooperative and a preschool operated by Chapel of Christ the King.

Sixty-four African-American and Hispanic students from several low-income neighborhoods were enrolled in TLC this past school year. The program requires parents to be involved as well. School leaders say enrollment will continue to be open to students from a variety of low-income neighborhoods.

TLC board member Jan Swetenburg is coordinating the task force effort to raise the $1.3 million, which she says also covers moving costs. Representatives from the school have been meeting with potential funders and she is feeling optimistic about meeting their October deadline.

“We’re excited about this move to ownership of our own home, because we’ve moved three times in 25 years,” said Swetenburg. “And this is a move that will get us back to our roots of being a neighborhood center, for families who we know will benefit from we have to offer.”

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, Ext 210.

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