Bezos Academy Explores Tuition-Free Learning Site at United Learning Center in Centralia

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The Seattle-based nonprofit Bezos Academy is looking to get involved in early-learning education in Lewis County.

The Centralia City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding between the city, United Way of Lewis County, the Capital Region Education Services District and the Bezos Day One Fund.

The memorandum states the Bezos Academy will “explore establishing a high-quality, tuition-free Bezos Academy preschool at the ULC (United Learning Center) site.”

Preschoolers — ages 3 to 5 and from low-income families — would be eligible to enroll in the program, which would operate five days a week.

Bezos Academy currently operates four network branches offering tuition-free, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities throughout the region, according to its website.

Centralia — a community where the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction says more than 90% of students are considered eligible for free or reduced price lunches — could be its fifth.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos established the Bezos Day One Fund in 2019 with an initial investment of $2 billion and the intent of creating a network of preschools in underserved communities and, in a separate initiative, support organizations doing work assisting homeless families.

The academy is currently looking to gauge support from the community, with hopes that families will buy-in to the learning concepts behind their program.

The effort is being spearheaded by United Way of Lewis County with the partnerships of other community organizations. The first phase of the United Learning Center is expected to begin Oct. 1. It will be built on a vacant city-owned lot located near the intersection of Maple and Pearl streets.

The city is providing the property, as well as $1.9 million in real estate excise tax. No permits, including the real “meat and potatoes documents,” have been filed yet as the group continues bringing in partners, City Manager Rob Hill said.

Scott Edison, partnership leader at Bezos Academy, told the Centralia City Council that Bezos’ goal with the academy is to establish and operate at least 1,000 Montessori-focused preschools across the nation.

“Our mission is to increase access to high-quality, early-childhood education in underserved communities, and we’re doing that not by writing checks to existing programs, we’re doing that by building an operation,” Edison said. “In partnership, we’re opening schools. First in Washington, but like I said, eventually across the country, and we are fully-funding the operations.”

The Bezos Academy, Edison said, is establishing these programs independently, and often within existing community education projects.

Edison said while they’re not Amazon, Bezos Academy “does take a page out of Amazon’s playbook, and that is a very clear focus on the customers. And in the case of preschool, the customer is the child.”

Their Montessori approach to education, he said, differs in that students follow their own interests and hands-on activities. The academy claims this enhances a child’s intellectual achievement, social cohesion and emotional regulation.

Children explore those interests in traditional subject-matter, such as math and language, with a focus on social-emotional development and practical life skill development.

The student-teacher ratio is usually 10-to-1. Three meals are offered to children daily, also free of charge to parents or the community.

“We’re only opening schools in communities that we can see a 10-year time horizon. That’s the minimum commitment we want to make to a community, and that’s for a number of reasons: we want to make that commitment to the families and children we work with, we want to make that commitment to our partners and we also want to make a commitment to the people that join our team,” Edison said.

Answering a question from Councilor Mark Westley, Edison said the goal with Bezos Academy is not to compete with other subsidized, early-learning programs. While some programs require an income range that’s under 130% of the federal level, the academy’s approach is to allow families of up to 400% to apply.

“The idea is that we will certainly accept kids that are truly living in poverty, or homeless situations, or foster care — we definitely want to serve those kids, but there are also a whole bunch of families that have earned their way out of poverty but are not at a stage when they can afford $20,000 in fees,” he said. “Essentially, we’re going to grow the pie.”

Councilor Rebecca Staebler said she believes the success will depend on the school’s ability to engage the community in the process, but notes there are some great opportunities to engage families and young students in hands-on learning.

Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who was on the call remotely, said he was excited for the program and possibility of the academy.

Bezos’ nascent education initiative hasn’t gone without its criticism. Leaders in existing education programs for low-income students in Washington state have voiced disapproval with the pop-up programs, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic turned education belly-up.

Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association for Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, told Forbes last year, “The announcement (of the Des Moines school) caught people off guard a bit ... While it’s great that Jeff Bezos wants to be more involved in this area, there’s an existing system that’s crumbling. We are also trying to triage amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and do more to strengthen the current system?”

Aside from direction, Bezos seems largely hands off from the academy initiative. Mike George, an ex-Amazon executive, is the current president of Bezos Academy.

The fund is also currently considering programs in other nearby communities, including North Beach School District in Grays Harbor. Its programs in Federal Way and Tacoma are slated to open this fall.

The Centralia community’s memorandum with Bezos Academy is not legally binding.

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