Building Better Preschools

Gin Phillips – SparkAction
April 3, 2006

In 1998, early learning opportunities for low-income families weren’t exactly Atlanta’s strong suit. None of the 21 Head Start centers in Georgia’s Fulton County met state licensing guidelines, which were some of the least stringent in the country. The Head Start centers were serving only around half of eligible children eligible due to lack of facilities, and the centers that did exist were in poor condition. In addition, the centers only served 4-year-olds, so siblings were in different locations and children had no continuity from childcare at earlier ages.

 Lynn Pattillo was on the Atlanta Committee for Public Education when the $13 million Head Start grant came up for renewal. Pattillo was among those pushing to encourage high-quality providers of early learning to apply for the grant and improve the city’s offerings.

But finding good providers was only one piece of the puzzle—Pattillo soon discovered that the poor quality of Atlanta’s existing facilities were a barrier to improving program quality.   “Providers with a high-quality track record, they needed something that fit their standards,” she said.

From the Ground Up

It was a hurdle she understood: Her family’s company, Pattillo Construction, develops industrial real estate, and she runs the foundation arm of the company. Pattillo set about creating Early Learning Property Management (ELPM) to fill the real estate gap, pulling in Executive Director Kara Portnell, who also has a background in construction.

In the past six years Early Learning Property Management has raised more than $30 million in capital funds to build or renovate 10 early education centers in Atlanta and surrounding areas. By taking care of funding, the time-consuming zoning and permit process, and construction, ELPM gets the centers off the ground, and lets the providers do what they do best. By 2003, the 2,400 children in Fulton County Head Start slots were all served by licensed centers.

Every center has a waiting list other than the one just opened. Not only do the new centers meet and exceed state licensing requirements, they have each applied or plan to apply to become nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The centers also offer parent training, extended day services and extensive community outreach.

Making the Numbers Work

Sitting across the table from Pattillo and Portnell, what you hear is the language of business. Sentences are peppered with “negotiate with strength” and “demographic study,” “capital” and “market value.” They’ve crafted a nonprofit that’s strong on accountability and hard numbers.

The emphasis on running the numbers was there from the beginning when in 1998 Pattillo and Portnell, just on the edge of creating ELPM, asked for a real estate analysis of the 21 Head Start centers in the city. The study looked at sites, square footage, how many children each center could accommodate, and what it would cost to get each facility to meet state licensing requirements.

ELPM also conducted a demographic survey, mapping the location of families with young children receiving TANF in relation to the location of the existing centers.   “We found the Head Starts were located in areas where they really weren’t needed,” Portnell said. “So when we did our master plan part of it was looking at where we needed to put them—and who we needed to work with.”

Recycled Schools

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) were in the middle of their own renovation project at the time, and Pattillo and Portnell thought closed school buildings might be suitable for conversion into early learning centers. “We needed a critical mass of buildings up very quickly because we had 2,400 kids out there,” Pattillo said.

So they took a look at the 11 vacant schools in the city, touring them all and identifying four in areas that their other research showed had a high demand for early learning centers. “These schools were vacant and some were in terrible condition,” Pattillo said. “We’d pick up crack bags and have to go in with city police because people might be in there.”

The buildings proved to be a good fit for the first ELPM projects, and the partnership with the school system thrived. Three of the buildings still house Head Start centers, while the Minnie Howell Child Development Center houses a successful, NAEYC-accredited program run by Premier Academy.

Sylvan Elementary School was closed in 1995, and was in “horrible” condition by the time ELPM started renovations in 1999, according to Portnell. ELPM quickly renovated a wing of the school in 1999, which enabled approximately 75 children to be served immediately, and completed the entire renovation in time for the 2002 school year. Now Sylvan Hills is home to a Head Start run by Easter Seals, with more than 220 children, two large indoor play areas and community outreach programs. Providing medical, dental and developmental screenings to children, Sylvan also has four social workers and a family support coordinator to ensure services to children and parents.

We’re created a feeder school system for their elementary schools,” Pattillo said. “They know the kids coming out of these centers are going to be prepared when they’re going to kindergarten.”

More Than Daycare

The bond to the communities helps define the programs. “It’s a positive revitalization to the neighborhood. It’s about the whole community,” Portnell said. “We try to bring the parents in; like they have to walk their kids to school to be with the child through the process.”

Each provider addresses needs in its own unique way, but to be selected, the operators must meet requirements laid out by ELPM, geared toward national accreditation requirements and general high quality. All centers offer community programs, including parenting classes, nutrition, adult education, and health awareness. Media centers allow parents to check out books, games, and parenting tools to take home. Most centers partner with a health system, tapping into vaccinations, hearing checks and vision checks. Programs help children transition to elementary school. The centers address obesity or how to prevent asthma. Almost 2 million meals have been served to children in the last six years.

“These neighborhoods had never experienced high quality, so they didn’t know what they were missing,” Pattillo said. “Now you have groups saying, hey, we want the same thing these guys have. Now that they’ve experienced high quality, they lobby for it. It’s created a grassroots demand for high quality.”

Division of Labor

Atlanta’s zoning and building parameters exacerbate the need for ELPM. With a particularly complex permit process, the city demands more time on the front end of building than many areas. Typically 90 days are needed for zoning, but with special use permits and construction permits, permission takes an average of a year and a half.   A school year can be lost in the process, and construction can mean another year or two added.

“Providers needed to focus on providing high quality childcare services and it takes an enormous amount of time for all the negotiation with contractors, architects, locating the sites, special use permits, construction permits,” Pattillo said. “This way they’re able to focus on operations.”

No Blank Checks

ELPM, a non-profit 501-c-3 organization, has renovated nine buildings and built one new center from the ground up. Another ground-up project is currently underway. With ELPM itself using only private funding, the centers are helped by Georgia’s lottery, which pays for pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old in the state. Head Start grants supplement that funding.

ELPM raises all the capital for each project, with the operating expenses then falling under the operator’s budget. Money is raised on a per-project basis, with each center ranging from $2 million to $5 million.  “We have to prove ourselves with each project,” Pattillo said. “How many kids, how much is it going to cost: accountability.”

Instilling Confidence

It’s a big chunk of money to raise every time around. But Portnell and Pattillo speak a language funders understand.  “Lynn has brought an entrepreneurial approach, a sense of impatience and high standards to the whole issue of early childhood development,” said Russell Hardin, vice president and secretary of the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation. The foundation, which focuses on metropolitan Atlanta, awarded more than $20 million for 20 grants in 2005. The foundation is also ELPM’s largest funder, having invested millions in organization over the last few years.

“Her studied approach won her credibility with the Federal officials and providers, and she became their ally,” he said.

“It’s really a different way of thinking,” Pattillo said. “I have a business background—that’s how I approach things, from business. How do you solve this problem?”   

“I’ve done projections for 10 years in terms of where we’ll be on maintenance costs, what we’re collecting on leases, where we’ll be capital-wise in 20 years, so we have an idea where we’re headed,” Portnell said. “That makes the funders more comfortable.”

Modeled after the industrial business Pattillo is deeply familiar with, the organization is designed to be self-sustaining. Portnell is the only full-time employee; ELPM outsources landscaping and makes use of volunteer accounting and pro bono legal services.

Once a center is complete, the provider moves in, and ELPM leases the facility to the provider at below market value. With that rental income, ELPM provides all building maintenance; to avoid ever having to go back to a funder for an existing center, the organization also sets aside a portion of rent for capital reserves. Two providers have purchased centers from ELPM—though most do not have the resources—and some centers have tapped into state resources and private foundations rather than a Head Start grant.

When a building is bought back, ELPM rolls the money into another center with the funders’ permission.  ELPM’s leasing policy insures stability for funders.  “We had construction expertise and a master plan of where these buildings were going. Plus funders didn’t want to build a $5 million building for someone who might not be Head Start provider the next day,” Pattillo said. “As long as we own the building, we know it’s going to be dedicated to 0 to 4. If you’re no longer the Head Start provider, then you move out and a new rentee moves in. That’s what the funders liked.”

Pattillo is looking ahead to a new challenge—trying to bring high-quality early learning centers to rural areas in Georgia. “It has different issues; they don’t have high concentrations of kids in one place,” Pattillo said. “So do you build smaller centers? But they’re not as efficient. Do you have portable units? We’re still thinking.”

Gin Phillips is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama.