Cutting-edge learning centers may be the norm in large, metropolitan areas but they can be hard to come by in East Texas.
However, Ashley Patterson, a communications specialist with Region 7 Education Service Center, said by the summer that local children will have a science center closer to home on Danville Road in Kilgore — EcoLand.
The new science center is under construction in the former Head Start center and is about 50 percent complete after almost five years on the drawing board.
EcoLand is tailored for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, ages 3 to 8. The center follows an ‘early childhood model classroom’ that will incorporate interactive exhibits tied to state curriculum standards with hands-on activities aimed at inspiring creativity and environmental stewardship.
A collaborative project with Head Start, EcoLand will bring excursions — now often out of reach — to almost 50,000 children throughout Region 7’s 17-county service area.
“All they have to do is get here. They don’t have to pay an admission fee to get in. It’s closer, right here in Kilgore in the heart of our region,” Patterson said. “Each room will have very unique educational activities that will be tied to the skills they’ll need that will help them once they get into the third grade and further on. This jump-starts the curriculum for them.”
An interactive center like Eco-Land has long been a dream of Region 7 Executive Director Elizabeth Abernathy.
Five years ago, the service center’s staff members met with principals and superintendents in the early planning stages of the local project. Soon after, the Region 7 staff toured similar facilities in Texas.
EcoLand is in its second construction phase. After a request for qualifications in March 2012, Region 7 ESC awarded the project to RLM Construction and began the first phase of construction, basically gutting the vacant building in fall 2012.
About half of the project’s estimated $4 million price tag has been funded, primarily using Region 7’s committed fund balance. Federal Head Start funds have been used for minimal, select costs during the renovation, and the program also approved the use of the building for the new center in January 2012.
“(Using the fund balance) basically gets us to the demo, renovation and putting the exhibits in,” said Katie Chenoweth, Region 7 ESC assistant director of school operations. “We had to write and get permission from Head Start to be able to use the building. We were also approved for the operating funds while the building is being renovated.”
“We had to do the demo first. There were lots of things that had to be done to the building before we could even go in and rebuild.”
The remaining $1.9 million in costs will come through fundraising efforts, specifically grant writing and private donations.
Overall, the renovated center will encompass about 14,000 square feet. It’s taking shape, said Region 7 ESC Deputy Executive Director of Operations Ronnie Hemann.
“There’s basically not a wall left in that building that was in the original. The stairwell is about the only thing you can recognize,” he said. “We’re excited for it, even more so now because you can actually see what’s happening in the building.”
While RLM continues renovations on the 1200 Danville Road facility, the planned exhibits are being put together in Vandalia, Ohio, by Exhibit Concepts.
The exhibit’s areas are Energy, Plants & Animals, Polar, Recycling, Rock, Safari, Solar, Water and Wind.
In the Energy room, child-size spinning bikes will be tied into a wall display. In that room, students’ peddling-efforts will generate the energy to light up the exhibit.
In the Plants & Animals room, a hollow larger-than-life tree will allow children to explore its innards. They’ll also have the opportunity to plant seedlings, take-home souvenirs.
In the Recycling room, students can take old, household items and repurpose them into art.
“That’s what this building is,” Chenoweth said. “This is a building that we are reusing. We’re not knocking it down. We’re not selling it. We are reusing it for educational purposes. And a lot of the materials that we’re using inside the building are eco-friendly, recycled materials.”
The Safari Exhibit will include a 12-passenger off-road jeep with LCD monitors embedded in the windshield and windows to recreate a wildlife adventure. Children will be able to use indoor campsites fitted with gear and luggage.
Patterson said each ‘trip’ in the Jeep will be different depending on the chosen video.
“Kids have a different experience every time they come in that room,” she said. “The kids can get in there and it will be just like they’re going on an actual safari adventure. It’s going to be very lifelike for them, very similar to what they would actually be doing were they in a real-life situation like that.”
Hemann said all of the elements of the center will be tied back, in some way, to East Texas.
For example, “In the rock room we’ll have an activity that’s focused around oil-and-gas and talking about our area,” Chenoweth said.
According to the current plans, use of the center will come through class trips. Initially, at least, there are no plans for private admission.
“It would be through a school visit right now, until we see how it’s going to run,” Hemann said. “It’s bringing the kids in with your teacher. They’ll be given instruction beforehand.
“There’s a lot of kids in East Texas that may never get out of East Texas. This gives them an experience. ... All this is done in the mind of: We want to help our kids. Give something to our kids.”
It’s too early to estimate what kind of weekly, monthly or annual traffic the center will see. Currently, Region 7’s service area includes about 2,200 students in Head Start and early Head Start. However, the 17-county area boasts about 47,777 students in early childhood through second grade.
Region 7’s officials estimate the center will be able to host three to four classes at a given time, depending on how much time each class spends in a particular area, and initial plans call for three full-time staff positions at EcoLand. Final employment numbers will depend on fundraising and traffic.
It may take students several hours just to receive the full experience of one room, Chenoweth said, necessitating repeat excursions. The center also will include a model classroom, one where early childhood and daycare also can receive training.
“We’re going to have that place so that the teachers can come in and see some best practices in that classroom,” Chenoweth said.
Throughout Region 7’s coverage area, the students farthest away would travel about 2 1/2 hours for an EcoLand daytrip, and designs include an indoor lunchroom and patio area for long visits.
“It’s not a come-and-play,” Hemann said.
“It’s doing work in a fun way,” Patterson said. “(It’s) very innovative. There’s just so many unique opportunities for the students to really learn concepts that they would learn anyway in school, but to really be able to experience it and see it working.”
For more information about EcoLand, visit ecoland.esc7.net.