Governor lauds effort to help toddlers learn earlier
by: Jim Clark The extensive playground at the new Head Start Childhood Center at Mt. Hood Community College has tricycles and a track for riding, spongy play areas, a giant sand box designed as a creek bed complete with water pump, a large marimba and a device that makes musical sounds when children drop gravel through slots.

Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke before dozens of local officials and community members in Gresham the morning of Sept. 27.

But his attention was on some folks who probably won't ever vote for him.

'I'm just delighted to be here looking at the future right in front of me,' he said, as the crowd laughed.

A group of little boys were sitting before the governor, who joined such officials as Rod Monroe, Mt. Hood board vice chairman, in celebrating Mt. Hood Community College's newly opened $6.2 million Early Childhood Center.

The 21,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility houses Head Start and Early Head Start, a federally funded program that provides child development services to pre-school low-income children and their families.

The center also houses classrooms for Mt. Hood students enrolled in the college's Early Childhood Education program.

In an interview following his speech, the governor acknowledged some taxpayers may wonder if the center is worth the public and private funds it took to build, given the current state of the economy. However, spending money on toddlers now means they're less likely to grow up to be teenage dropouts - or worse - inmates housed in taxpayer-supported prisons, he said.

'It's absolutely essential that we maintain early childhood education investment,' Kitzhaber said.

And helping low-income children means you're helping their parents as well, noted Mike Hay, Mt. Hood's interim president.

He said the average age of a Mt. Hood student is 30, and that many of the community college's students are parents. Having childcare and early education available on campus takes a burden off such students, who might forgo a college education because they can't find adequate childcare.

'It enables a whole lot of parents to have their kids looked after safely and securely in a teaching, learning and wonderful play environment with hot food, and positive people looking after them so their parents can go and pursue what they're doing,' Hay said.

On their level

More than 1,000 children are enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start at 15 different locations, including church, community organization and school buildings, throughout the Portland metro area, officials said. The new Mt. Hood center is far and away the best of these locations, said Jean Wagner, Head Start and Early Head Start director.

'We usually move into a room and do the best we can,' she said. 'Here we worked with the architects from the beginning to create an environment we wanted for the children.'

The new center features classrooms built specifically for children's heights, with an ample number of windows close to the floor and sinks and bathrooms that are easy for them to navigate.

'Everything is at the children's level,' said Diane Aldringer in one classroom as she worked with a little girl on a drawing.

Another feature of the new center is the use of natural lighting, with windows reflecting sunlight at various angles, according to Kurt W. Haapala, one of the architects who designed the building. An associate principal with the Portland-Seattle architectural firm Mahlum, Haapala said the building reflects the latest thinking in design for children's educational facilities.

'We wanted to embrace different kinds of environments and different kinds of spaces,' he said, adding the rooms have 'small scale nooks' that children can climb into when they feel like it.

Rene Berndt, another Mahlum architect who worked on the center, said the classrooms reflect the changing moods of children by allowing them places to be by themselves.

'They don't always have to be in the big group,' he said. 'They can have their own little niche.'

No more leaky roof

Ellen White, program director for early childhood education at Mt. Hood, said there's 60 students currently enrolled in the program, and they won't miss the old facilities, two portable modular buildings, or trailers with overburdened plumbing and no place in the ceilings to hang digital projectors.

'We had lots and lots of issues not to mention the mice,' she added with a chuckle.

The new center features eight classrooms for children and two classrooms for students in the education program. The center's windowed openness to the natural world, as well as its playground, which features everything from logs to such musical instruments as a marimba, encourages the kind of play that will develop children's brains, she said.

'(Today's) children have lots and lots of experience with plastic, but not with bark on trees, sunlight coming in windows,' she said.

Berndt said the designers were trying to introduce children to the natural world through the center.

'They really enjoy playing in nature versus playing on their laptops,' he said.

As for White, a longtime Mt. Hood faculty member, she seems as happy as a child in a sandbox about the new facility.

'I've been waiting for 25 years for this to happen,' he said. 'I'm over the moon!'

Early Childhood Center

• The Early Childhood Center is the first new building on the Gresham Mt. Hood Community College campus in more than 30 years. Construction began in December 2010 and was completed this month.

• The center is located off the Stark Street entrance, and was created through the efforts of the design firms Mahlum and GreenWorks as well as Walsh Construction.

• Head Start operates the center in collaboration with Mt. Hood Community College.

• The center will serve 184 children, ages 6 months to 5 years, enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start. Seven hours per day of childcare will be available to Mt. Hood students.

• The center is divided into four communities of two classrooms each, including three rooms for infants and toddlers. An internal street meanders through the communities, forming plazas, squares, nooks and corners to create a variety of spaces for play and quiet time.

• The world-class playground includes a rope climbing structure and basketball nets, musical instruments and a tricycle corral and path.

• The state of Oregon, Mt. Hood, Head Start, the U.S. Department of Education, Meyer Memorial Trust, Henry Hillman, Juan Young Trust and the Autzen foundations as well as Mt. Hood employees funded the project.

• Reynolds High School construction trades students built benches and storage cubicles.

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