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With construction nearly complete, Lew Williams early learning center will open in January

ST. PETERSBURG — After construction delays, the Pinellas County School District's first early-childhood center is expected to open in January.

The Lew Williams Center for Early Learning will offer full-time day care services to low-income children, ages 1 to 4. It will open with eight classrooms and room for 107 children.

"It's going to be a first-class facility," said David Barnes, who oversees career and technical education in the school district.

The goal, aside from offering quality child care, is to prepare more low-income students for kindergarten. Nearly 30 percent of students who enroll in kindergarten each year in Pinellas aren't ready for school, according to district measurements. Most of them come from low-income neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, Lealman, Clearwater, Largo and Tarpon Springs.

The early-childhood project was conceived in honor of Lew Williams, a School Board member who died in December 2011. He ran a preschool and was passionate about early childhood education.

District officials had hoped to open the center in August in a renovated, 10,000-square-foot space at the Pinellas Technical Education Center in St. Petersburg, known as PTEC. But poor weather delayed construction and it soon became obvious that the goal was "pretty unrealistic," Barnes said.

Construction now is expected to be completed in two or three weeks. With the holiday season coming, it made more sense to plan for a January start, he said.

The school district originally budgeted about $1.4 million to renovate the space at PTEC. Plans to open another site in Clearwater were scrapped after the district's bid for a Head Start grant was turned down. A cost estimate for the current construction at PTEC was not immediately available.

The center will be run as a partnership between the school district, the Early Learning Coalition, Head Start, the R'Club and the Juvenile Welfare Board. Some of the administrative details still are being worked out.

District officials also hope to use the Lew Williams Center as an occasional "learning lab" for students from Gibbs High School who are studying early-childhood education. They also plan to start a training program in early-childhood education at PTEC. Those students also could get hands-on experience working with children at the Lew Williams Center, Barnes said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.

With construction nearly complete, Lew Williams early learning center will open in January 10/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 3:21pm]
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