SANTA ROSA -- State-funded nonprofit First 5 Sonoma County granted $1.38 million to an early childhood and parent education "campus" at Santa Rosa's Lawrence Cook Middle School, part of $5.13 million in one-time grants to support what educators and employers call the "cradle to career" approach to workforce development.
The grant will create a southwest Santa Rosa hub for early childhood, adult literacy and other programs offered by First 5 and the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County. Operated alongside the regular middle school, the first programs are expected to be offered this fall.
Efforts are also underway to pursue an elementary school charter for the program, a move that could allow cohort-style learning from kindergarten through eighth grade at the Cook campus and improve outcomes for students in what many consider to be one of the city's most at-risk communities, educators said.
"Our hope is to take those cohorts and move them up the grades at Cook," said Patricia Turner, principal. The school has participated in a guaranteed-placement program with Sonoma State University and Elsie Allen High School for two years.
"With rich development in the beginning, we are really making sure that the complete child is going forward and not falling through the cracks," she said.
The First 5 grants, which include both education and health-focused initiatives, reflect the interest among both North Bay educators and employers toward the long-term impact of supporting programs targeted at young children and their parents, according to Cynthia Murray, president and chief executive officer of North Bay Leadership Council and a First 5 commissioner.
"From an employer point of view, education is our top public policy issue," she said. "Starting with early childhood is the best return on investment."
About 200 preschool students could be served at the site through Community Action Partnership's Head Start programs. The ultimate vision, which requires an additional $2.5 million in funding, is to construct enough new space by late 2015 or early 2016 to offer classes from preschool through sixth grade, according to Oscar Chavez, partnership executive director.
"This is revolutionary in the sense that we are developing a rich public--private partnership with the school district," Mr. Chavez said. "This is the manifestation of 'cradle to career' in southwest Santa Rosa. The business community gets it. If we want to attract quality businesses that require a world-class workforce, we need a world-class education system."
The First 5 commission also funded programs such as the Sonoma County Human Services Department's initiative to establish best practices for providing early-childhood education, Community Child Care Council, Sonoma County's scholarship program for preschool attendance and a number of oral health programs.
While First 5 Sonoma County spent the past few years building a capital reserve amid decelerating revenue from the cigarette tax that funds both it and similar programs around the state, an increased call for aid inspired leaders to put some of that reserve to work this year, according to Executive Director Alfredo Perez. The one-time funding is in addition to the group's other annual grants for early childhood development, which typically average $4 million per year.
"We want this to be a market-driven initiative," Mr. Perez said of the yet-to-be-named Cook hub. Employers demand greater quality in their pool of workers, but kindergarten is basically what first grade was many years ago, he added.