Next Generation Learning Center nearing completion

MANISTEE — School officials and legislators don’t always agree on everything when it come to education, but one area they stand united on is the importance of early childhood education.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Family Services director Jason Cross and Next Generation Learning Center director Holly Karlsen look over plans for the new early childhood education center that will be opening in April.  Cross said work is right on schedule and the new center will offer state-of-the-art early childhood education programs to members of the Manistee community.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Family Services director Jason Cross and Next Generation Learning Center director Holly Karlsen look over plans for the new early childhood education center that will be opening in April. Cross said work is right on schedule and the new center will offer state-of-the-art early childhood education programs to members of the Manistee community.

Many studies and statistics have proven that children who get a strong educational start in life are usually the ones that  go on later  to be successful in school. It is the main reason Gov. Rick Snyder and the state legislature have taken steps to put more funding toward early learning programs.

All residents in this area will soon have the opportunity to gain access to a state-of-the-art  facility with the Next Generation Learning Center that will be located at the corner of U.S. 31 and M-22 in Manistee County. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians have spearheaded this $1.4 million project that will give children from 0-12 years of age a safe place to stay during the day and learn.

Grants formulated a big portion of those funds to create the center and the Little River Band of Indians was also instrumental in providing financial support.

It is a project that began in 2014 and was led by Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Family Services director Jason Cross. The center will be opening in April, and Cross emphasizes that this center will be for everyone in the area.

“This isn’t just a center for children of Little River Band members as it is for everyone in the community, and we want to get that word out,” said Cross. “We are already taking applications and have in the mid-20s right now.”

What will also make the center unique is what they will offer in programs for that 0-12 years of age demographic. There will be infant care with sleeping accommodations, toddler care, preschool, and before and after school care, making it convenient for working parents with young children.

Other amenities they offer are:

* Indoor and outdoor classrooms;

* Low child to teacher ratio;

* A cutting edge security system;

* Highscopic Curriculum qualified staff;

* Natural indoor and outdoor playground;

* Greenhouse and whole food prepared meals;

* Tuition assistance and free programming for those who qualify; and

* Local public school transportation pick up and drop off to school age students.

More than $1.4 million has been invested in the Next Generation Learning Center that will be located in the former original casino building next to the Little River Casino & Resort at the corner of M-22 and U.S. 31. The new early childhood education center will be offering service from 6 a.m. until midnight to local residents for their children.

More than $1.4 million has been invested in the Next Generation Learning Center that will be located in the former original casino building next to the Little River Casino & Resort at the corner of M-22 and U.S. 31. The new early childhood education center will be offering service from 6 a.m. until midnight to local residents for their children.

Holly Karlsen has been hired as the new director of the center. She has a master’s degree in early childhood education and said that all of the teaching staff will be highly qualified and certified.

Karlsen said the response from the public so far has been outstanding.

“Recruitment and enrollment is in full swing,” said Karlsen. “We have done some presentations for community partners and got some information out in the public on what we are offering.”

Another aspect that the Next Generation Learning Center brings to the early childhood education world is service in a time frame that can’t be found anywhere else in this area. People with young children who work second shifts can benefit from the hours the center will be open.

“We are very unique in that we offer swing shifts, as we are open from 6 a.m. until midnight,” said Karlsen. “So a lot of people are very thankful for those hours.”

It is expected that the there will be 15 employees in the entire building. Cross added that all the staff will go through a very thorough vetting process that includes intense security checks before they get hired.

“We are also partnering with West Shore Community College and Baker College,” said Cross. “So their early education and nursing students will be in the building working with the children and teachers and observing as part of their studies.”

Cross said the Learning Center is going to be something that isn’t available anywhere in this part of Michigan right now.

“There really isn’t anything around here quite like we are going to have to offer,” he said. “I have seen similar ones at Michigan State University or Central Michigan University doing what we are here, but outside of that you don’t see this type of thing around here.”

Workers prepare an area that will be used as a greenhouse at the Next Generation Learning Center that will be located next to the Little River Casino & Resort. The preschool will offer students learning opportunities that can't be found anywhere in this area.

Workers prepare an area that will be used as a greenhouse at the Next Generation Learning Center that will be located next to the Little River Casino & Resort. The preschool will offer students learning opportunities that can’t be found anywhere in this area.

Karlsen said the preschool will bring a first class learning environment.

“We are doing what is the Best Practices Curriculum and it carries tons of research behind it based on what children need,” said Karlsen.

Cross said every community has different needs and the Next Generation Learning Center was designed on the needs of Manistee County. It is all specific to this community right on down to the two huge fish tanks that will be stocked with local fish for learning opportunities.

“Everything is focused to things kids can see every day and that is just a benefit of what have,” said Karlsen. “Because we are doing the Best Practices focused curriculum our center is going to look different than what families might be used to seeing in a preschool. All of our furniture will be collaborative pieces, so children sit on benches instead of chairs so they can collaborate together. All our dividers and shelving is based on casters, so the equipment they need can be moved to where it is needed.”

She said that mobility allows them to move things into the greenhouse or outside, the large indoor playground or anywhere else in or around the center.

“It is sort of catered to that spin of what is best for the child and not necessarily have the schools get ready for us, but making sure our center is ready for the children,” said Karlsen.

Karlsen said they have requested some Great Start Readiness Program (preschool state funded) slots, they are hoping to offer free preschool to those who qualify.

For the school age children, the Learning Center will offer parents many good opportunities. Cross said they have worked with the area public schools on that matter.

“If someone goes to work at 6 a.m. they can drop their child off and we will watch them until the school bus arrives to take them to school,” he said. “After school they can get dropped off the same way and we will watch them, feed them and make sure they get their homework done.”

Karlsen said they will have a private road built in from M-22 so buses and other people bringing in their children will not have to enter at the busy casino entrance.

Cross said they will have technology available so students can use their iPads for homework, but there isn’t going to be any television or video games. It will all be educational type activities for the after school programs.

“For the summer months, the school age kids we are doing activity camps, and we have got together local community partners,” said Karlsen. “So even if your child isn’t enrolled in our center full time you can still look at sending them to our enrichment type summer camps. West Shore Community College has offered to partner for some of those and with the greenhouse we have talked about having the kids produce those and sell them at the farmer’s market, so it is the full cycle of learning.”

Cross said partnerships have been the key to this project, and they have opened their doors to all interested parties that benefit children.

“We want this to be a place to be where families can come to receive any services, so other agencies are always welcome to partner with us,” he said. “We want to be a central location for all of those things.”

They have also partnered with the Child Advocacy Center that deals with abused children and that agency will re-locating in the building. Their space will be totally separated from the learning center to give them privacy. The Child Advocacy Center will also have a private entrance from the back section of the building for privacy reasons.

Cross said if people want to learn more on the center, there are several options.

“We have a Facebook page for the center. It is under the name Next Generation Learning Center,” said Cross.  “We are also currently building a webpage that will be done soon. We are taking student applications and they can be found on the Facebook page or people can email Holly at hollykarlsen@lrboi-nsn.gov or she can be reached at (231) 398-6718 to learn more information.”

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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