Preschool pushed out by YMCA buys Grier Heights site

A group of kids run while playing some football on the playground at The Learning Collaborative on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. The center has successfully bought a new home in Grier Heights and will move out of the YMCA site by the fall.
A group of kids run while playing some football on the playground at The Learning Collaborative on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. The center has successfully bought a new home in Grier Heights and will move out of the YMCA site by the fall. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A controversial YMCA decision to reclaim a building leased to The Learning Collaborative has proven a boon for the low-income preschool, with the publicity helping it to raise $1 million-plus in donations to buy a new headquarters.

TLC expects to reopen this fall in a renovated shopping center on Sam Drenan Road, a site police have long cited as a magnet for trouble in southeast Charlotte’s low-income Grier Heights community.

Gone now are the barbershop, grocer, cellphone dealer and store-front church that occupied the 8,060-square-foot shopping center. In their place will soon be classrooms enough to grow the school from 64 to nearly 90 students from low-income families, as funding permits.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are among those applauding the move, noting criminal activity within 100 feet of the shopping center (three blocks east of Randolph Road) has virtually vanished since the stores closed this winter.

In 2014, the department says it received 22 calls to the site between Feb. 1 and March 17. This year, there have only been only two calls in that period, police said.

“This all happened quickly. Last year at this time, we weren’t sure where we are going to live and how we would get there,” says Judith Carter, executive director of The Learning Collaborative.

“We’d like to believe it’s where we picked to move that is a key to all the support. The community realizes (Grier Heights) could use additional support for its children.”

Grier Heights, a neighborhood of about 3,000 people, has a violent crime rate five times the city average, based on census data. Three of four families there rely on food stamps, and the school dropout rate has been twice as high as the city average.

TLC officials say a tuition-free preschool will help, though it is not limiting enrollment to Grier Heights children.

The rush of community support for TLC came after a March 2015 Observer story detailed how it was facing a June 2016 deadline to vacate its headquarters in a building owned by the Johnston YMCA on North Davidson Street.

The YMCA said it needs the space for children’s programming of its own, but the decision to oust the charity was controversial. The building is managed and owned by the Johnston YMCA, but it was built with community donations for a specific use: helping at-risk children from low-income families, which is the mission of TLC.

School officials said they had run out of options in their search for a new home when the nonprofit CrossRoads Corps in Grier Heights suggested TLC buy the neighborhood’s shopping center.

Donors big and small have lined up to give money to buy and renovate the shopping center, which is 1,000 square feet bigger than TLC’s current home. Larger donors included Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, the city of Charlotte and the Leon Levine Foundation. The CrossRoads Corp helped, too, along with $3,500 raised by a group of Grier Heights neighbors.

TLC said it is continuing to raise money for additional needs, such as playground equipment and office equipment.

The agency’s program helps at-risk preschoolers by bringing them closer to the education levels of more advantaged preschool children across the county. Parental involvement is required as part of enrollment. 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.

Among the Charlotte leaders backing the school’s move to Grier Heights is Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Ruby Jones, who is a Grier Heights community activist and member of TLC’s board. Jones says there was resistance in Grier Heights to the closing of the shopping center, because many saw the minority-operated businesses as examples of racial empowerment and black enterprise.

“The shopping center was a valued part of the community, and issues over its loss will only be put to rest when the school is there, up and operating and engaging parents,” said Jones.

The school’s current program is aimed at children ages 3 to 5, preparing them for kindergarten. Shannon McKnight, TLC’s director of development, said plans are being discussed to create a program for 2-year-olds. A summer camp program might also be added, something the agency was never allowed to do at the YMCA site.

School officials say they are taking measures to guarantee that the troubled past of the shopping center site doesn’t pose any threat to the children, including fencing and security systems. However, Carter said, TLC has a history of thriving in troubled areas, including time spent located across from the crime-plagued Piedmont Courts housing project.

“We can’t be intimidated,” said Carter. “We have already been a part of Grier Heights, with bus service for students, and we were never worried. We were excited to be there. This is where our families live and it is now where we live.”

How to help

To help TLC with its move to Grier Heights, send a check to The Learning Collaborative, 3045 North Davidson St., Charlotte, NC 28205, or give online at www.tlccharlotte.org. Details: Shannon McKnight smcknight@tlccharlotte.org or 704-377-8076 x 210.