While some young children arrive to school every morning ready to learn, others sit at their desks with their heads down all day.
Those are the children Schuran Cartwright, the 53-year-old assistant director of the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center, worries about most: the ones who don't get enough sleep, skip dinner before bed or encounter other struggles that impact their readiness to learn.
“You will wonder, ‘Did they have a rough night, did something go wrong at home, they had a bad drive to school?’” Cartwright said. “You never know what their differences are opposed to that child who just walks in ready to go.”
The GEZ Family Learning Center is a new preschool center founded by the local nonprofit Gainesville for All, known as GNV4ALL, which seeks to address racial and economic inequities in the community.
The center opened its doors to Alachua County families Aug. 10 and is located on the Metcalfe Elementary School campus. Roughly 20 students ranging from 6 weeks old to 4 years old currently take advantage of the resource, Cartwright said.
The center divides students by age into five groups: a class of infants and a class for each age group from 1 to 4 years old. Each small class has its own teacher to focus on their learning.
The center’s mission is to close the educational achievement gap between Black and white students in Alachua County. Staff aims to accomplish this by encouraging families to be more involved in their children’s education and connecting them with teachers and available resources in the community, she said.
“We say that family is in our title for a reason,” Cartwright said. “It’s because we not only want to educate children in our center, but we also want to educate the families as well.”
Alachua County has the largest achievement gap between Black and white students of any school district in Florida. For the 2021-22 school year, only 22% of Black students reached a moderate achievement level for mathematics and 25% for English Language Arts, compared to 68% of white students reaching a moderate achievement level for mathematics and 70% for ELA, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Metcalfe Elementary’s student population is 87% Black, according to its public school report card. For the 2022-23 school year, only 24% of third and fifth graders and 30% of fourth graders passed the ELA state assessment. For the math assessment, only 26% of third graders, 30% of fourth graders and 21% of fifth graders passed.
Increased parental involvement is key to closing the achievement gap, the center’s director Angellia Walker said.
The center is looking to hire a family outreach coordinator who would help plan events where parents can connect with the teachers and learn about resources that address issues like food insecurity and financial instability.
“Hopefully, through strengthening the family in the early education of their children, we can not only help the child be ready for kindergarten but possibly have given the parents some tools,” Walker said.
The FLC also works with nearby elementary schools, like Metcalfe and Marjorie K. Rawlings, to monitor students’ transition to higher grades. This allows Walker and other staff members to better understand the center’s impact on student’s education, she said.
A large part of the center's success stems from its partnership with Alachua County Public Schools. The school district provides the facility's Metcalfe campus location for free, pays a portion of the center's monthly utilities expenses and supplies other other helpful resources, according to ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson.
“We recognize that so many of our students enter school in kindergarten, and they are just not ready to learn yet,” Johnson said.
ACPS has high hopes for the center’s achievement. Johnson hopes the services the center provides will help both students and parents to be successful academically as well as socially and behaviorally once they enter school, she said.
Although the preschool center is only in its first weeks of operation, its teachers and supporters feel optimistic about the future.
Laporsha Smith, a 44-year-old Gainesville resident and educator, teaches the 4-year-old students at the center. She said more areas across the country should put more effort into creating preschool programs to help children adapt to a K-12 school environment.
“My vision for this place is for it to expand,” Smith said. “Other schools can start branching off parts of their buildings to open for preschools.”
The center’s teachers and leaders are not the only people who believe in the importance of preschool education. GNV4All was awarded two $350,000 grants for the center's creation by the Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission in 2022. Both donations came from American Rescue Plan funds.
Gainesville City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut supports the center’s mission to dissolve Alachua County’s achievement gap and voted in favor of the commission’s grant in 2022. The more learning opportunities children have, the better prepared they are to enter the K-12 educational system, she said.
“Quite simply, it’s an investment in our future,” Chestnut said.
Children need teachers who put in the effort and will go the extra mile for them, Cartwright said. That is what she wants for the school.
“It’s gonna take a lot of family involvement,” Cartwright said. “It's not just gonna take that ‘meet the teacher’ one time.”
Families can pay full price for the center's tuition or receive assistance through the VPK and School Readiness initiatives from the Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County. The average cost of enrollment is $300 per week, but for low-income families who qualify, the ELCAC pays up to $250 a week, Cartwright said.
Once the FLC finishes building an outdoor playground, it will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony in mid-September to celebrate the center’s opening.
Contact Valentina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @valesrc.
Valentina Sandoval is a third-year journalism major and the Race and Equity/East Gainesville reporter for the Enterprise Desk. She has also worked writing and translating stories in Spanish for el Caimán. Whenever she's not writing, she's expanding her Animal Crossing island, making Spotify playlists or convincing someone to follow her dog on Instagram.