A free preschool for low-income children recently hit the jackpot when a donor gave the nonprofit badly needed playground equipment for a new location in east Charlotte.
But nearly a month after the start of fall classes, the equipment continues to remain untouched outside The Learning Collaborative. And it will stay off limits for the foreseeable future, say school officials.
“The kids can’t play on it,” says Shannon McKnight, director of development for The Learning Collaborative. “It’s a safety issue. It’s required that you have a safety barrier surrounding anything that’s a playground, which we can’t afford yet.”
The barrier she speaks of is not meant to be around the playground, but under it. Six inches of a special mulch is needed under the equipment, about 25 cubic feet.
Price tag: $1,100. That’s money the school doesn’t have after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocating to a new site this summer in the Grier Heights community.
It’s not unreasonable for the school to hope someone will step up and donate the mulch, because that’s pretty much how The Learning Collaborative was able to relocate this summer.
The preschool was located for about 10 years on the same site as the YMCA in NoDa, but YMCA officials wanted the building for other uses. That put The Learning Collaborative in the hunt for a new home, which the nonprofit CrossRoads Corp found in the guise of a 8,060-square-foot shopping center in Grier Heights.
A community campaign successfully raised more than $1.3 million in donations and grants to buy the site and renovate it, including money from Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, the city of Charlotte and the Leon Levine Foundation.
The move is seen as part of a bigger plan to help revive Grier Heights, believed to be Charlotte’s oldest African-American neighborhood. It was founded as a farming community in 1886 with four houses. However, an exodus of homeowners in the past 50 years led to economic decline and an increase in crime. Today, 87 percent of the homes are rentals and about 40 percent of the residents are under age 18. The dropout rate among students is roughly two times the local average, says CrossRoads.
Nearly a quarter of the 64 students in The Learning Collaborative are from the surrounding Grier Heights community.
New playground equipment for the school was considered a long-term goal, but Charlotte’s United Way learned of a donor seeking to relocate playground equipment. United Way not only connected the donor to The Learning Collaborative, but lined up volunteers from Husqvarna to dismantle the equipment, move it, and then rebuild it at the Grier Heights location.
The school has also benefited from donations of computers, laptops, educational toys and school supplies for its students, who come from financially struggling homes. The school’s core mission – to strengthen struggling families – is one that is receiving increased attention in the wake of a week of violent protests staged in Charlotte last month, after a fatal police shooting of African-American Charlottean, Keith Lamont Scott.
Activists involved in the protests have criticized the community for not being committed to helping low income people rise out of poverty, including a lack of affordable housing needed to stabilize families.
McKnight noted many of the parents who are coming to the school for help are struggling with rising costs and stagnant pay.
“The demographic we serve is often just about surviving,” said McKnight. “What we are working to show them is that they are not just dropping off their children at ‘child care.’ We are trying to change the way they view early education. It’s not a daycare, it’s much bigger that that. It’s life changing early education … that can set the tone for higher expectations.”