The Day – New London poised to purchase B.P. Learned building for use as resource center

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New London — The city is in negotiations for the lease and potential purchase of the B.P. Learned Mission building at 40 Shaw St. and has formulated a plan with the school district to convert the building into a community resource and childhood development center.

Funding for the proposed purchase of the building would come from the estimated $21.8 million the city is expected to receive in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief money. City records show the appraised value of the building is $2.14 million.

The City Council earlier this month approved an “early access agreement” with the building owner, Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut. The agreement allows access to the building prior to the Sept. 1 start of the lease.

In addition to an array of family and social services expected to be offered at the building through a collaboration between the city’s Human Services Department and school district, New London Public Schools would use B.P. Learned’s existing classrooms to nearly double the capacity of its preschool offerings this fall.

“We know there is a need for more preschool, especially because of COVID. We’re trying to come up with transformative work that we can do now that will make a lifelong impact. These are the critical formative years to get it right,” Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said.

The school district was awarded a state-funded, two-year $500,000 Smart Start grant that will allow the district to increase the number of pre-k classes from five to nine and add 60 children to its program, aimed in part at reaching the underserved population experiencing greater challenges accessing early care and education.

The B.P. Learned building provides a physical location that had been sought not only for the preschool classes but for the “birth to age 8” initiative the school district has planned, Ritchie said.

New London Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein said the program would be a model for the region and state and was developed in part from the work of the city’s Long Term Recovery Committee’s Education Subcommittee, led by Mirna Martinez.

“It really started as a way to move out of the pandemic and moved to this model initiative,” Milstein said.

Ritchie said the school district had plans to establish a resource center with or without the space but had joined with the city in a search for a location. The B.P. Learned building offers enough space for hands-on workshops, social events and a place for families to network. Services would include participation of specialists like occupational and physical therapists and mental health psychologists.

Funding for the initiative would come from the $16.5 million anticipated to flow to the district through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund program, or ESSER.

“To me, choosing to take our (pandemic funds) and investing in our kids is probably one of the best investments anyone could ever make,” Board of Education member Bryan Doughty said. “It’s not just for the kids but extends to the community, it reduces social services costs … it benefits the whole community.”

“There are so many opportunities to bring residents in, and the community in and participate with our kids and support our kids,” he said. “I hope when people look back, they see what we did as a group and how smartly we used our money. I hope we’re looked at as a model.”

Ritchie expects the resource center will help create partnerships with private sector early childhood providers in the region. Milstein said it also would offer a base for work to help families find resources for things like computer literacy and job training, mental health and social services.

Mayor Michael Passero said the project is a collaborative effort toward a shared common goal of reaching more families with needed services.

The 13,500-square-foot B.P. Learned building is not only close to move-in ready but also offers outdoor space, a small black box theater, gymnasium, cafeteria and playground. It is adjacent to New London Adult Education, which would bring an opportunity to merge some existing family programs. Ritchie said work to be done includes things like converting the bathrooms for use by young children.

B.P. Learned Mission, established in 1859 to serve children from low-income families, has long offered a location for after-school and summer programs for children and parenting programs for adults. It also hosted space for the learning pod initiative developed in the city to accommodate distance learners during the pandemic.

B.P. Learned, which merged with the nonprofit Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut in 2003, closed in November when COVID-19 restrictions regarding cohorting groups of students became unmanageable.

“We were concerned that instead of keeping people safe, we would be contributing to the spread,” Child & Family Services CEO Allison Blake said.

It was during the months B.P. Learned was closed that Blake said her agency started discussions with the city and school district about the vision for an expansion of services.

“What is proposed is amazing, far reaching and will reach more families than we ever could,” Blake said. “As a nonprofit, a community agency, we understand our role is to be responsive to the needs of the community. It felt to us over the last several months the needs were shifting and new resources are being brought to bear.”

Blake called the initiative a new beginning for B.P. Learned Mission “to continue serving as a safe place for the city’s children and youth for generations to come.”

Felix Reyes, the director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning, said the final negotiated cost for the lease and for the purchase would need approval of the City Council. Any lease payments are expected to be subtracted from the final purchase price.

Meanwhile, the Child & Family Agency has an application pending with the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission for expansion and upgrades to a parking area, a portion of which is located on an adjacent parcel of land next to Walgreens.

g.smith@theday.com

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