Close to 200 people turned out Tuesday night for the Washington School District’s opening of its new Early Learning Center, off Highway 100 West.

The 25,000-square-foot building is located at 831 W. Pride Drive, adjacent to Washington West Elementary School.

Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said the center is a “dream come true” for the district.

The center combines three programs under one roof — early childhood special education, Parents as Teachers and all of the in-town preschools. It will serve children, infants through preschool age.

“I was very pleased to see so many people at our ribbon cutting and dedication,” VanLeer told The Missourian. “It was a wonderful day for our school district and the community as a whole.”

VanLeer said the “conversation” about early intervention and a facility such as this started more than 15 years ago.

“We have made early intervention a priority and now we have a facility that brings all of our services together in the best possible environment,” she said.

“We are super excited about this place,” she added. “We will serve families well and we very much look forward to doing it.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony kicked off the festivities Tuesday and was followed by guided tours from staff and a special dedication in the playground area.

VanLeer introduced several staff members, including Dawn Hellebusch, director of the center; Pat Frank, Parents as Teachers coordinator; and Kelly Worstell and Maria Brady-Smith, who will both work at the center.

Also on hand were Dr. Jon Bauer, president of East Central College, and Mary Beth Huxel, ECC instructor. ECC has a partnership with the school district to offer dual credit coursework in early childhood development at the Early Learning Center.

Special Dedication

At the playground dedication, VanLeer asked for a moment of silence for Owen McInnis, a student at Washington High School who passed away this past April. Owen’s parents set up a memorial fund with the money going toward playground equipment at the Early Learning Center.

“Owen received many services through the district that his family very much appreciated,” VanLeer said. “We appreciated Owen, and today we celebrate his life.”

A tree, planted in the center of the playground, was dedicated to Owen, whose parents, Ruth and Kenneth, and brother, Evan, were in attendance. Behind the tree is a piece of equipment purchased with Owen’s memorial funds.

“I would like to thank the McInnis family for sharing this special grand opening day with us,” VanLeer said. “We believe many children will find happiness on this playground due to the kind donations made in honor of Owen.”

VanLeer said the community deserves the credit for the new center, which was made possible through a $9 million no-tax rate increase bond issue approved by voters in April 2013.

The building has 13 classrooms in total, including infant/toddler, 2-year-old, preschool and early childhood special education rooms, the Parents as Teachers office and meeting rooms, and a multipurpose room for group meetings and presentations.

Lawlor Corporation was the general contractor for the $4.1 million project.