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TWO-MONTH-OLD RHOYAL, with Sapphire Yancey at the ABK Learning and Development Center in the Hill District. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Lesely Crawford has been a teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools for 18 years, with degrees in education and counseling from Duquesne University. But when she noticed seventh- and eighth-grade students who couldn’t read, she opened ABK Learning and Development Center in Morningside to begin addressing that very problem.

Now, thanks to a chance meeting with Michelle Sandidge, communications director for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, Crawford has been able to open a second center in the Bedford Hope Center in the Hill District, where she grew up.

Now, thanks to the authority and Duquesne University, she has the opportunity to create what may serve as a public/private early childhood education model.

“I need to take this on full-time because that’s how passionate I am about it. To see kids in seventh and eighth grade who can’t read—that’s a travesty. I thought this has to be addressed earlier.”

Her idea was to open an early learning center that offered what quality pre-schools offer, but without the restrictive time constraints that many working people can’t meet. As a credentialed teacher, she can do it. And she is doing it 24/7.

“I have a client who works at West Penn Hospital, she works three 12-hour shifts, and has three kids. So they all come here, three days a week,” said Crawford. “And we have an arrangement that lets her go get five hours of sleep before she picks them up.

The center, located in the bottom floor of the Hope Center, has the capacity to serve 35 children. Currently there are 13 attending at various times. Crawford also has a staff of six and is bringing in two more for the night shift.

But even that will change in April when Christopher Meidl, PhD, and assistant professor of Early Level (Pre-K to grade 4) Education at Duquesne starts bringing in students over in April.

LESELY CRAWFORD, CHUCK ROHRER, MICHELLE SANDIDGE, DR. CHRISTOPHER MEIDL (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“So, everyone meets the kids and staff, teaches parts of the curriculum-—and he’ll train my staff, too,” said Crawford. “This will be a tool for the long haul, because my staff can continue to teach after the students have gone—and his students get hands-on experience.”

Dr. Meidl said he got involved because of conversations about community outreach with Sandidge.

“We know that cost efficiencies might not happen right away, but that’s part of the commitment to making this work for the community that doesn’t have this kind of service in any capacity in the community,” he said. “People working night shift at UPMC or AGH can say, ‘Look at this accessibility.’”

Sandidge said it makes for a win-win-win: Crawford gets the space, Duquesne gets the educational exchange and research and teaching, and the community wins—HACP residents enrolled in any of the authority’s self-sufficiency programs get access to the center for free.

“That’s a big barrier to a lot of the people getting into our training programs—where do I put the kids,” said Sandidge. “And a lot of our residents work non-traditional hours. So this is a partnership that we think can grow and be a model that we can take to foundations and expand.

Dr. Meidl said this is a long-term commitment. “We can support this center and provide students what they need, and that this can be an ideal, best-practice model—that can be emulated around the country—for a learning environment for young children. I want to study how this overnight care can be done most effectively. It’s newer in the field. So how to do it well is the question.”

Cost for enrollment is based on income. The maximum amount, said Crawford, would be $30 per day. “This has been 20 years in the making for me,” said Crawford. “It’s based on what I saw in the classroom and the desire to provide a service that I wouldn’t have been able to get. The process is now to make it work and to work well.”

 

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