LAWRENCE — Sharing the parking lot with a Dunkin', the building looks a lot like a strip mall.

That's because at one time, it was.

From the outside, the Child Care Center at 581 Andover St. is quite non-descript. A bunch of cars, some buses, the aforementioned Dunkin' are all visible from the street.

Then there is the building, emblazoned with the sign indicating it is a school facility owned by the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, or GLCAC.

Once a supermarket, the inside of the pre-school for low-income children and their families has been transformed over the years into a warm, inviting learning environment.

Teachers have created beautiful murals in the hallways. Classrooms are adorned with decorations. Mini chairs and low tables are filled with smiling children, eating raspberry yogurt "and granola," as one young girl with curly red hair explains.

But the building, and the grounds around it, have outlived their usefulness. Quietly, almost stealthily, the board of directors of GLCAC over the past three years has raised $7.9 million to build a new school on the same piece of property. The group just received a $1 million donation from the state, bringing the total raised to $8.96 million.

Another $440,000 is needed to meet the goal of $9.4 million, and school officials are bullish about the project and the fund-raising.

"We looked for another building," said GLCAC Executive Director Evelyn Friedman. "We wanted to stay in Lawrence and build a facility for 250 kids. Everything we found was too big or too small, so we decided to rebuild on-site."

The existing building is about 20,000 square feet on one level. The new building will be 30,000 square feet on two levels and the number of students will increase from the current 200 to the goal of 250.

"We only have $441,000 left to raise," said Jennifer Carter, director of program planning and evaluation, who is also responsible for grant-writing. She said $660,000 has been raised from individuals and family members, another $70,000 from staff and board members.

Sara Morin works with Carter and helps organize the annual gala in April. She said she is hopeful that event will put the organization over the top and that the white tip of the oversized fund-raising thermometer will turn red by spring.

In obvious need of expansion

During a tour of the facility last week, it became clear very quickly how much the school needs more space.

Items were stored in the hallways. Classes were doubled up in many cases.

A gym, also known as the "gross-motor room," is tiny and can only handle 10 children at a time.

The new facility will have two much larger gross-motor rooms, enabling more children to play at any given time.

Classrooms will no longer be doubled up: In the current facility, one classroom has 20 kids on one side with two teachers. A makeshift wall of cabinets and desks marks a boundary of sorts, inside of which are 10 kids with one teacher.

In the new facility, there will be 20 kids per classroom, with two teachers in each. No shared space.

Jessi Surette, whose title is "inclusion coach" and whose job is to help children with behavioral difficulties, is looking forward to the new facility.

"It will be so much bigger, with more room for classrooms, and it will serve more children," she said. 

Adelaida Guzman, a teacher of 10 years, said she was hopeful about the new school, noting that with more room comes "more decorations which will make the kids more interested" in learning.

Other problems abound in the old school.

For example, the 13 employees in the transportation division are jammed into a small room in the center of the building. A room for teachers to do lesson plans is even smaller, but it is the only place in the building with WiFi.

The new school will offer larger rooms for these and other programs, as well as more and larger administrative offices, where employees are now doubled-up.

The new facility will have one, large kitchen, where food will be prepared for the six schools under the GLCAC banner throughout the city. The agency will hire at least 20 new teachers and staff.

Grateful for grants, donations

Outside, the differences will also be dramatic.

The way the construction is planned, the new building will be adjacent to the existing building, on top of the playground for the older kids and on top of what is now the parking lot for buses. It will go from the back to the front of the property at Andover Street.

When the new building is done, everyone will be moved over and the old building will be razed, making way for a brand-new playground, more parking, and a driveway that will carry buses and cars out the side of the property, onto Diamond Street.

Currently, buses trundle into the front entrance, pick up students, and then back up and out the exit/entry. Making matters worse is that customers going to Dunkin' have a tendency to use the entrance to the school before going left to the drive-through.

Under the new scheme, the Dunkin' driveway will be isolated from the rest of the property with landscaping and curbing.

Friedman said she was very thankful for all the support the agency has received for the new school, especially the $1 million grant from the Baker-Polito administration through the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation.

The grant was announced last month as part of a $6 million gift to child care programs across the state.

“Our administration is pleased to support facility improvements at early education and care programs throughout the Commonwealth to provide families with the resources necessary for success in and out of the classroom,” Baker said during a ceremony Dec. 19 at the YMCA Cape Cod in Hyannis, one of the facilities benefiting from the state program. 

"Renovating and repairing child care facilities helps achieve the administration's goal of providing quality early education and care in all Massachusetts communities."

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