The Walla Walla Center for Children and Families is open and preschool has begun.

There was no big grand opening party — the COVID-19 pandemic stole that — but Monday, Sept. 13 marked the first day of preschool and transitional kindergarten for full-days at the new center located in the former Blue Ridge Elementary School.

The center is a result of an October, 2019, school board decision to convert Blue Ridge Elementary School, which already housed a preschool program, to a fully dedicated early learning center beginning in July 2020.

While the center had a soft opening and did some distance learning and hybrid programs last year, COVID-19 related delays pushed the full opening back to this school year.

While there wasn’t any construction done in the conversion, the inside of the school received a new paint job with bright colors. One hall way has the alphabet painted on.

A lot of work is still being done to get everything running, Monday was all about the first day of school for students in the building.

“Today, we open all of our programs, our preschool programs, like a normal school year,” said Samantha Bowen, director of early learning and family engagement for WWPS. “We’re so happy to have kids here.”

The mood Monday was that of a first day of school with laughter and excitement in the air.

The former elementary school now hosts all of Walla Walla Public School’s early learning programs such the preschool programs for low-income families and the new transitional kindergarten program. WWPS’ Highly Capable program is also hosted there.

The center is more than a school though, and it houses organizations outside WWPS.

“We have been partnering with organizations such as the Walla Walla Valley Disability Network, the local Early Learning Coalition,” Bowen said. “Children’s Home Society has family navigators here located at this site. The idea behind the center as a whole is to create a one-stop shop for any parents with young children so they have one place to go.”

Other community partners who will host programs focused on early learning at the center include Camp Fire, as well as Walla Walla Public Libraries, who has taken over part of the former elementary school’s library and will be offering programming three days a week.

Walla Walla Community College also has a classroom on site for their Tot Spot program, a class for parents and their young children to participate in together.

Still, at its core, the Walla Walla Center for Children and Families is about offering preschool opportunities to local families. Families have multiple options to choose from.

WWPS runs its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program at the center. The ECEAP is funded by the state of Washington and provides early education for children ageds 3-5 from low-income families.

The Head Start program, funded by the federal government, is for children ages 3 and 4 from low-income families.

These programs already existed within the district. But with the opening of the center, the district is now also offering a transitional kindergarten program. Unlike ECEAP and Head Start, there is no income requirement for transitional kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten is for 4-year-olds who have not had access to other preschool programs. Its goal is to prepare students for kindergarten.

“This one isn’t income based,” Bowen said. “This one is more based on need and lack of access … We can serve up to 72 in the program.”

Bowen said that across all the programs, the center has about 150 students with room for roughly 150 more.

The programs make use of the entire building that used to be the elementary school, including the gym. A P.E. teacher is on staff to keep children active for part of the day.

One part of the center not quite open is the playground. The elementary playground has been removed and Bowen said a more “age appropriate” playground is being assembled in its place.

Bowen said the preschool programs enroll year around and still have room.

For more information on the Walla Walla Center for Children and Families, the programs it offers and its community partners, visit wwccf.org.

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Reporter

Jeremy covers education, as well as Dayton and Columbia County, for the Union-Bulletin. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.

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