Harris YMCA plans $3M child education center

One of the largest YMCA branches in North America, the Harris Y in south Charlotte, is growing larger still as part of an effort to help more children.

The 26-acre Harris branch on Quail Hollow Road intends to build a 10,000-square-foot education center that will be dedicated to children’s programs, including a rare Spanish immersion program for Charlotte preschoolers.

The YMCA will break ground this fall, and the Cato Education Center is scheduled to be finished by summer 2015 at a cost of about $3 million. All but $300,000 of the money has been raised, and a campaign is underway to raise the rest in the community.

The Harris Y serves more than 7,000 children annually in its summer camp, recreation and education programs. One in five of them are “scholarship” kids from families that need financial help. However, many programs at the branch are full and unable to take more children, officials said.

Bart Landess, who is the YMCA’s vice president of major gifts, said the Cato Center is part of a push to reach more children in struggling families living to the south and west of the Harris branch.

The center’s 10 classrooms, pavilion, stage and open-air gym will host activities ranging from after-school programs to day camp, as well as the Y’s preschool.

“We want to go deeper into the community and serve kids not being served with children and youth services,” Landess said.

“As soon as you cross South Boulevard, you get into immigrant neighborhoods with kids that are new and not plugged into the community.”

The Spanish immersion preschool will be one option for those children, he said, offering English- and Spanish-speaking children a chance to learn from each other. It’s an approach that was used years ago by Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, until it became apparent an overwhelming number of immigrant students needed help with English. As a result, the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is now open only to Latino preschoolers, and it has a waiting list.

The Harris Y Spanish immersion preschool program will have 14 students to start with and two teachers. The Harris Y has also hired a bilingual community development director.

Regionwide, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte has 5,701 youths enrolled in education mentoring and tutoring programs, and 44 percent receive scholarships.

“This harkens to a time when the Y was responsible for a lot of firsts in Charlotte,” Landess said. “We had the first public library (1877), first indoor public swimming pool (1908), and night school was started in 1880 for anybody that wanted to take classes. At various points, if it was appropriate, we’d do it.”

Joannah Roseman, communications director for the Harris Y, said the new Spanish immersion program is considered a test, to be launched as one class for the 2014-15 school year. If it proves popular, it could expand to as many as three classes, thanks to the extra space in the new Cato Education Center.

It’s currently being advertised to English- and Spanish-speaking households, and will include a nationally recognized and flexible approach so all students can be included in activities, she said. The class, which still has seats available, will be led by a native Spanish speaker.

Among the parents who appreciate what the Y is doing is Sherrie Cuevas, the mother of two girls, ages 4 and 6, the youngest of whom is in preschool at Harris Y. Spanish was the first language of her husband, Johnathan, the son of a Costa Rican mother and a Dominican father.

“My 4-year-old would be in the (Spanish) class if they offered it now,” she said. “Having children of different ethnic backgrounds and demographics in the same class teaches them they are essentially the same: They are all children. They all want to learn. They can be friends.”