MOLINE, Ill. — Western Illinois University plans to open a Spanish Bilingual Early Learning and Family Empowerment Lab in downtown Moline.
It's part of a partnership between WIU-QC and the city, as well as Gorman & Company, an urban property developer. By establishing the center near the old I-74 corridor, organizers hope to fill a badly-needed child care gap in the area, while also making steps toward Moline's downtown revitalization goals.
The center will be able to accommodate about 65 kids over several different shifts. Organizers say it will mostly focus on infants, toddlers and preschoolers, but will open the age range up to 8-years old for the weekends. During the week it will offer both first and second shift slots.
WIU-QC plans to open the child care center in August 2022, in the first-floor space of Moline's Enterprise Lofts. Right on River Drive, the 2,400-square-foot space was planned for commercial use, but has sat empty for more than two years.
Right now the room is barren, saved for some pillars and a small wall of cabinets. But Dr. Lindsay Meeker, one of the key organizers of the center, has big plans to transform the space into an inviting, creative escape.
"The idea is that students can kind of make their own choices about their interests and where they want to spend time during free play," she said. "When you come into the center here, you see kind of these pillars. What will be surrounding this kind of stuff is sound barriers - they're curved."
Inside those barriers, Meeker envisions read-alouds, foreign language exercises and potentially even an art space. Off to the side, she pointed out different spots on the floor, labeling them 'library,' 'office area,' and 'more play space.'
"What we really want to accentuate is we are looking to create a very open field so that children have room for both gross motor development and intentional play," Meeker said.
It's been a years-long process for Meeker to get to this point. She's a visiting professor of early childhood education at WIU and also serves as the director of the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. To her, having an opportunity to address a need in the community, while also promoting bilingual literacy, is a win-win for both the children and Moline.
"We know that approximately 25% or more of our kindergarteners in Rock Island, Moline, East Moline, qualify as multilingual learners. And the more we can empower our early childhood workforce to be able to work with students and families of linguistic diversity, we're putting ourselves in a better place," Meeker said.
The bilingual instruction will also be taught through partnerships with local students and educators, including with Black Hawk College.
But the benefits don't stop with the children, said Meeker.
Moline, like the whole Quad Cities and much of the country, has been struggling with inadequate child care resources. Since the start of the pandemic, the city lost six home-based providers, which cost the area over 50 child care slots.
"The child care crisis is a Moline problem but it's also a larger Quad City problem and a nationwide problem being cited as the reason that parents cannot get back into the workforce following the pandemic," Meeker said.
"They're going to be providing educational opportunities through this site, but also providing childcare at the same time, which then allows the city to see a growth in employment," said Ron Clewer, Illinois market president for Gorman & Company.
And the location is only a benefit, say organizers.
"I think it's a perfect spot, right off the bridge, whether you're going in coming you live here, or here, that convenience factor is great," said Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati. "The Urban Land Institute report we received in the summer also mentioned the possibility of this very kind of center being attached to residential housing in our downtown. And lo and behold, we had a building ready to help us deliver this service."
The center will overlook the old I-74 bridge corridor, next to the city's water department. That report from ULI looked at ways to revitalize Moline's downtown space and recommended a large family park in that area.
"This lab will help add tools in our tool belt for addressing the needs of care for our community's children and their parents who move our economy forward," said Mayor Rayapati.
The announcement coincided with the first day of Moline's new child care loan program, which is awarding $10,000 to $50,000 to new or experienced child care centers in order to expand and support the existing infrastructure.