SMC — After more than 20 years of talk, City Hall and Santa Monica College are finally taking action.

The SMC Board of Trustees on Tuesday entered into an agreement with city officials to build a $12.5 million early childhood education center that will serve as a daycare as well as a learning lab for college students who desperately want to see their teachings put to the test.

With the agreement in place, officials said they can move from the concept phase to the design phase, hire consultants and develop a business plan for the facility, which is expected to be located in the Civic Center and accommodate up to 100 infant, toddler and pre-school children.

The goal is to design a facility that is both aesthetically appealing and functional. It will include classrooms and a place for college students to observe the youngsters, as well as office and meeting spaces for parenting workshops and early childhood research and development.

“For myself and many other people who have been working on this for many years, this is the beginning of a dream come true,” said Betsy Hiteshew, a member of Santa Monica’s Early Childcare and Education Task Force and a former SMC professor with the Early Childhood Education Department.

“First off, this is an important service because so many of our students have children and they need childcare to help them complete their studies,” Hiteshew said.

It’s also critical to have a childcare center near the college that reflects the philosophy of SMC’s Early Childhood Education Department so those studying to become educators can see first-hand how the philosophy works.

SMC operates without its own childcare facility, one of only a handful of community colleges in the state to do so, officials said.

The center will be partially funded — $7 million — by Measure S, the $135 million SMC bond measure approved by Santa Monica and Malibu voters in 2004. In addition to the land where the center will be located, City Hall will also kick in $5.5 million of General Fund money, $500,000 of which is coming from RAND Corp. as part of a 2005 development agreement approved when RAND filed permits to build its new headquarters across from the Santa Monica Courthouse.

The idea for creating a childcare center in the Civic Center first surfaced in 1989 when community members and city officials were working on the Civic Center Specific Plan, which dictates how land is used in the area, said Iao Katagiri, director of community relations for RAND Corp. who is serving on an advisory group for the education center and a member of the Early Education Task Force.

“In the early days it was just conceptual,” she said. “It never got very far. It just kind of sat there as a place holder.”

Then in 2005 when the Civic Center plan was updated, the education center was reaffirmed as necessity for the community. SMC was the logical partner to operate the center, Katagiri said.

She expects some RAND employees will send their kids to the center. There’s also the opportunity for researchers from the think tank to “contribute intellectually” to the lab portion of the project, helping SMC students with their research, she said.

Who will run the center day to day is still uncertain, as is the cost for attending. Officials envision college students, faculty, city staff and employees at RAND being the first batch of customers, along with families in Santa Monica and Malibu.

SMC will most likely hire an outside contractor to run the center; one who will have to run it in accordance with the college’s philosophy, part of which is based on studies that show young children learn best through play, Hiteshew said.

“The excitement that this is actually happening is palpable,” said Katharine Muller, the college’s dean of external programming and institutional planning. “But there are so many pieces that need to be completed.”

The City Council must sign off on the agreement Tuesday. It must then go through the development approval process, which will include three different routes — the college’s, City Hall’s and the Coastal Commission. That will most likely take years.

And then there’s the concern about funding. With state budget cuts hitting community colleges hard, some are questioning how the center will remain open. A beautiful building is great, but if it’s not being used then what’s the point?

“We’re going to have to wait and see how the dust settles,” said SMC Trustee Louise Jaffe, an advocate for life-long learning. “It’s not a stable landscape for funding right now.”

The working group guiding the project will discuss funding options so that the center is around for the long haul, officials said.

Despite the challenges, Jaffe and others are excited by the opportunity to do something unique. Jaffe said expectations are high given the programs already offered in the community, as well as the success of the Broad Stage performing arts venue, which was built by the college using bond money.

“Hopefully [the education center] will be another foundational piece for the cradle to career system we are trying to build here to make sure all of our children can have the best possible future,” Jaffe said.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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