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$16 Million Early Childhood Learning Center to Be Built at Bromley-Heath

The state-of-the art center will have 12,000 square feet of outdoor natural play space.

A new $16 million early childhood center will be built at Bromley-Heath, officials announced Friday.

Hundreds gathered under a tent on the development's basketball courts to celebrate the news.

"I can't wait til this is built," an elated State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez told the crowd. "This is going to be a lightbulb for this community."

The center, to be run by Associated Early Care and Education, will be erected where a dilapidated three-story brick building stands. The old building used to be the home of the Martha Eliot Health Center, now ensconced in a new facility nearby.

"Getting to this point wasn't easy," said Wayne Ysaguirre, president and CEO of Associated Early Care and Education. He noted that the drive to build it began four years ago, just as the economy tanked.

Construction of the 20,000 square foot facility is slated to begin in late November and be finished by January 2014, according to the Mayor's Office.

The center's curriculum will include Science Technology Engineering & Math programs, physical fitness and the arts and after school programs focusing on nature and outdoor exploration. The center aims to serve not only the pre-Kindergarten age kids who are its main focus, but also the families of those children. Adults will be able to get parenting classes and coaching about finding and keeping work.

Ysaguirre said the center will be "unlike anything in Boston and, I suspect, in the nation."

"This center is yours," Ysaguirre said to the Bromley-Heath residents in attendence. "This center works if it works for you and your families."

Several speakers alluded to the center's role in what they hope will be narrowing the "achievement gap" between poor African-Americans and Latinos and the rest of the nation.

"This is about closing an opportunity gap," Ysaguirre said. "The most creative people I know are poor people."

Carol Johnson, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, spoke in the place of Mayor Thomas Menino, who is recovering from a virus. She said the center would inspire young children to have a love of learning, reading and books such that they won't "consider it a chore" to further their education.

"This [the achievement gap] is a totally solvable problem," she said.

Many different government and private agencies are supporting the project. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is putting in $5 million. The United Way is giving $500,000 this year and $500,000 next year.

The biggest applause of the event came when a member of Gov. Deval Patrick's cabinet announced the state would kick in $1.5 million.

Citing the ongoing work at nearby 225 Centre, where the massive steel superstructure is in place, Secretary Greg Bialecki of the Department of Housing and Economic Development said Patrick has his eye on the needs of Jackson Square.

"We will continue to make investments in this neighborhood until everyone feels the effects of the economic recovery," Bialecki said.

Getting approval for the project required an act of the legislature. Two of the politicians who shepherded it through Beacon Hill spoke at Friday's celebration: Sánchez and State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz.

"This is going to unleash so much talent into our communities," Chang-Díaz said. Like many speakers, she pointed to the importance of strong early childhood education for residents to succeed.

A big project like this doesn't come together without lots of fundraising, of course. The point man for that fundraising, Jonathan Lonske, said all the effort will be worth it.

"I've spent my career in investments," said the lanky, tall Lonske, "and this is hands-down the best investment I've ever seen."

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