ST. PETERSBURG — It took nearly three years, but with a flurry of singing, dancing and storytelling, the Pinellas County school district’s first early learning center opened its doors Thursday.
The Lew Williams Center for Early Learning is a living testament to its namesake, who worked in the school district for about 40 years until he died in 2011 at age 68 while serving as a school board member. Williams used his positions in the county to advocate for early childhood education.
The center, at 901 34th St. S., on the Pinellas Technical Education Center campus, will provide day care and education classes for children 1 to 5 years old living in poverty in South St. Petersburg.
The eight classrooms can accommodate 104 children. About 90 already have registered, and the last teachers were hired Thursday afternoon, said Susan Weber, the new program director for the center.
Some parents, like Lisa Carter, are scrambling to enroll their children before the center opens on the first day of school Aug. 18.
“It’s brand-new, but the little information I’ve seen about it really interests me, especially the low teacher-to-student ratios,” Carter said as she struggled to keep her 3-year-old son, Jayden, outfitted in a Superman cape, away from the new tricycles on the playground.
Williams’ widow, Arthurene, who cut the ribbon, said there is perhaps no better tribute to her husband, “the gentle giant,” during her tear-filled dedication. Williams grew up in a low-income, single-parent home and often missed school to take care of his six younger siblings, she said. He had dreamed of joining the Army so he could have a path to college and a career as a lawyer, but a high school English teacher saw his potential. She enrolled him in the historically black Allen University and paid for his first year of college, instilling in him the passion to become an educator.
“Lew’s greatest passion was for children, especially those labeled as he once was, disadvantaged and struggling,” Arthurene Williams said. “From the beginning, I said if we’re going to do this we’re going to do it right, and if it’s not done right don’t attach Lew’s name to it. And we’re doing it right.”
The school district is joining with the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, Lutheran Services of Florida and R’ Club Child Care to run the program. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor were a few of the dignitaries who spoke at the opening.
The center will work to ensure that children are kindergarten-ready and will work with parents on how to educate their children at home.
R’ Club will run the center, maintain state licensing, pay staff, provide breakfast, lunch and snacks to students and implement the curriculum, which will be set by the Juvenile Welfare Board and the school district.
High school students taking career education classes and post-secondary students at PTEC will get hands-on experience working at the center. Students in the Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School will volunteer with music and art classes.
“I never got to work with Lew Williams, but one of the most powerful things in life is being able to feel the impact of another human being that’s gone before you,” said Pinellas Schools Superintendent Michael Grego.