Seattle-based education nonprofit Bezos Academy has signed a 10-year lease with United Way of Lewis County to operate a preschool for students from low-income families at the United Learning Center (ULC), which is due to open sometime in 2023.
This latest development marks a milestone for the project, which will be located in downtown Centralia. Earlier this year, Bezos Academy entered into a memorandum of understanding with the City of Centralia and United Way to explore the feasibility of such a venture.
Bezos Academy plans on operating a full-day, year-round, tuition-free preschool for children ages 3 to 5. The school’s program will be inspired by Montessori learning, which is student led and self paced, but “guided, assessed and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of student peers and nurturing environment,” according to a news release from United Way.
In a statement to The Chronicle, United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Campbell said the partnership with Bezos Academy is a thrilling opportunity.
“We have done a lot of research and collected a great deal of data during the past two years, including local income levels, participation in free and reduced meal programs, and gaps in access to licensed child care providers. Partnering with Bezos Academy will be life changing for the participating students and their families, and will ultimately be a huge economic driver for Lewis County,” Campbell said in a statement.
Construction of the ULC and bringing in Bezos Academy is part of United Way of Lewis County’s “30 by 2030” goal of lifting 30% of Lewis County families out of poverty by 2030. Through their research, the United Way of Lewis County board identified early childhood education as a key strategy in reducing poverty.
In a Monday interview with The Chronicle, Bezos Academy President Mike George said it was “clear from the beginning that the community in Centralia believed in the importance of serving the children, given the fact that how much of who we are today is affected by what happens between birth and 5.”
Bezos Academy, he said, is excited to be part of this ambitious push toward serving the needs of Lewis County families.
The academy currently operates a single school in Des Moines. By the end of this year, the academy is looking to open four more branches, including two within public schools in Tacoma, one in Pacific Beach and another in Federal Way.
George said the nonprofit will be opening all their schools with the same high-quality care and attention that they’ve given their first school.
“We’re going to focus on making sure that the children who come from financial need have access to those seats; that we launch and operate the same high-quality classrooms with the materials and curriculum and food and all the other services that we did in our first school; and, I think as importantly, we’re going to focus our recruiting efforts first on the local community because we think it’s very important for the children to see themselves in the educators who are in front of them,” he said, adding of staffing: “ We’ve had great success so far.”
Bezos Academy head of communications Katie Ford said they’re contracted to operate four classrooms, though how those classrooms look will likely be dependent on where the COVID-19 pandemic is in the coming years. With each classroom serving about 20 students, roughly 80 low-income students could be served through Bezos Academy Centralia when it opens.
The school will select students through a lottery system. More information on those details are to come, as well as information on job opportunities.
Both Bezos Academy and the ULC aim to serve families who are asset limited and restrained on income, but who are also employed. According to the news release, these families are in an unfortunate middle ground where their wages are too high to qualify for free state preschool care but not high enough to afford private care and learning opportunities.
Families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level, with children ages 3 to 4, will be eligible to apply.
“We’re actually excited to be a part of a project like this for a number of reasons. First off, the need is definitely there, and this is the type of community that may not get the attention that the more populated, urban areas get because it’s a little out of the way. So, I’m just excited to be part of a project like this,” George said.
Bezos Academy is part of the larger philanthropic cause Bezos Day One Fund, created by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who himself was a student of a Montessori school growing up in New Mexico.
Montessori education is designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship and accountability, according to the news release, and students learn in multi-age classrooms. Children benefit from embracing multi-sensory learning and inquisition.
“Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals,” the news release reads.
United Way says Montessori students grow up to be “confident, enthusiastic and self-directed learners and citizens, accountable to both themselves and their community.”
Funding for construction of the ULC was made possible through $3 million in funding secured by former state Rep. Richard DeBolt, a $1.9 commitment and land donation from the City of Centralia, and a $1 million grant awarded from the TransAlta Centralia Coal Transition Board.
George said Bezos Academy Centralia plans on opening the same day the ULC does in 2023. In addition to Bezos Academy, the first-phase of the ULC will also house Discover! Children’s Museum and the Boys and Girls Club of Centralia.