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County Shelves Plan for Early Learning Center at the Mall

Education: Despite getting donated space at Del Amo and $440,000 in federal aid, officials decide to move program to existing facilities.


It was designed to grab attention: a new kind of school for the youngest of children in the biggest of malls.

Los Angeles County education officials hinted at an opening this spring. News releases were drafted. Designs for the school were drawn. In its official materials, the U.S. Department of Education featured the project as a prototype for teaching early literacy to children younger than 5. The Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance agreed to donate 5,500 square feet of prime retail space. Congress earmarked $440,000 to launch it.

Despite all this, the Early Advantage Center hasn't opened. Staffers at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which was to run the mall-based center, say it probably will never open. After five years of planning, the county quietly abandoned the center earlier this year, with little notice to the idea's backers.

As word has leaked out, the reversal has puzzled those supporters. Adding to the confusion is the wide variety of explanations given by the county's education leaders for dropping the idea. Its acting superintendent said the county Office of Education--a little-known but powerful bureaucracy with a $700-million budget--now prefers to offer the services at existing nutrition centers for a wider geographic spread. Other officials worried that the mall-based school might not survive financially beyond one year.

Some of the center's backers allege that the cautious education bureaucracy was scared off by the possibility of political battles set off by jealousy from other parts of the county.

"The whole thing has sort of fizzled," said Rose Kauffman, a former county assistant superintendent who originated the concept. "No one can give you a good reason why it won't happen."

Kauffman, an educator for 30 years, said the idea of a school-in-a-mall first occurred to her in a dream five years ago. Long a close reader of scientific studies on brain development in young children, Kauffman had been thinking about ways to communicate that research to parents. After conversations with educators and scientists around the state, she worked with the Bakersfield City School District in putting together a literacy center for young children at a mall there three years ago.

For Los Angeles, Kauffman envisioned an even grander learning center. With the backing of then-county Office of Education Supt. Donald Ingwerson, she proposed a facility that, like the mall, would be open evenings and weekends. It would have no steady enrollment, but instead would allow parents to walk in with children at any time. Instead of permanent classes, it would offer a variety of learning stations, with activities repeated throughout the day. Parents and child-care providers also could sign up for special classes in how to stimulate the brains of the very young.

"The concept had a lot of support," said Madeline Hall, the county grants development coordinator, who sought funding. "In terms of the county office trying to help the most districts and kids, we can do this by focusing on school readiness. And a mall is a place where people from a variety of different places assemble."

The county's Early Advantage program formed partnerships with local hospitals to offer classes at the center and develop pamphlets and videos with tips on boosting young children's capacity to learn.

"It was a very, very challenging concept but also a good one," said Dr. Lloyd Brown, associate director of the pediatric residency training program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, one of Early Advantage's partners.

County officials also began to look for a mall that would host the center. By last year, Torrance Co., owner of Del Amo Fashion Center, had agreed in writing to donate retail space worth $1.2 million a year next to Macy's department store, county officials say. The county facilities staff performed a study. Architects made drawings of a facility. It was to be decorated in "Sesame Street" style--with colorful floor stencils of numbers and letters.

Last spring, four California members of Congress--Reps. Jane Harman (D-Venice), Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar)--began aggressively lobbying congressional appropriators to specifically fund a learning center in the mall.

With the commitment from the mall in place, the county launched an aggressive public relations effort to promote the new learning center. Sophia Waugh, president of the county Office of Education board, talked up the idea to reporters. The concept received a mention at a White House meeting on child development last year. A team from the U.S. Department of Education was invited to inspect the program; a subsequent article in a fall issue of the department's Community Update referred to the new center as a fait accompli.

In that article, the county described the Del Amo site as "a prototype for major malls throughout Los Angeles County."

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