A new TUSD preschool geared toward Tucson 3-year-olds is the district’s latest venture to prepare some of the city’s youngest, and often underserved, learners for academic success.

The Richey Early Learning Center will open its doors Tuesday.  Funded with federal money, the program will have an academic emphasis, complete with benchmark testing to ensure that children are grasping key concepts needed for kindergarten and beyond.

The program is the Tucson Unified School District’s only free, full-day academic preschool. The school, housed in the former Richey Elementary School campus, 2209 N. 15th Ave., will work to eliminate the achievement gap that is often present in impoverished children who lack exposure to high-quality early-learning experiences.

“Our community and our state are woefully weak in the area of early childhood opportunities, and we really need to address that,” said Andrew Kent, the school coordinator. “Early intervention is key — it’s the best investment we can make in our society, but it has not been a priority in our state.”

Using a nationally recognized curriculum — AppleTree — the Richey Early Learning Center will emphasize academics, but play will also be a key component, said Kent, an educator for 35 years.

“Every opportunity that can gracefully be turned into a learning experience is,” Kent said. “Even at playtime, the adults working with children are to engage them in conversation, eliciting observations as they play so everything is intentionally weaving in concepts that children need to conquer.”

Because expectations are high, it’s not enough to simply hope that children are grasping the concepts being taught, Kent said. The curriculum has built-in benchmark testing and calls for constantly assessing skill attainment and understanding of key concepts. The assessments will then be used to inform instruction.

“That’s where you eliminate gaps,” Kent said. “You don’t just plow ahead; it’s a key focus on making sure kids get it before you move on. Most preschools don’t have assessment tools.”

And if all goes well, the Richey Early Learning Center may become a model for what can be done districtwide, Kent said.

“We are hoping to embark on something that may give us some direction on what we end up doing on a wider scale if the curriculum and program are truly as successful as we believe they will be,” Kent said.

The school is primarily serving 3-year-olds this year, with a goal of expanding to possibly serve as high as second grade, although that would be years in the future.

Students will start the day with breakfast at 8 a.m. and will also be provided a snack and lunch before the day comes to a close at 3 p.m.

More than 30 students have enrolled for classes already. With a capacity of 40 students, there are a limited number of spaces still available, Kent said.

To qualify, students must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. While the school is a collaborative effort between TUSD, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the San Ignacio Council, the school is open to all children across the Tucson area.

There will be two classes with a maximum of 20 children each. Each classroom will have one certified teacher with an early-childhood endorsement and a teacher’s assistant.

The school also will have one paid community helper who will assist at lunchtime, a custodian who also will serve as the groundskeeper, and Kent, who will wear the hats of coordinator, office manager and health assistant.

The cost to run the school is about $396,000 a year.

The Richey site has been vacant since 2010, when TUSD closed the school as a cost-saving measure. The Early Learning Center is occupying only about 30 percent of the facility. The remaining space is expected to be leased to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and other interested parties.

The Early Learning Center was initially billed as TUSD’s first charter school, but instead will operate as a satellite program affiliated with Manzo Elementary School, Kent said.

TUSD has expressed an interest in possibly converting some of the district schools into charters, saying it would receive more in student funding that way. However, the district would not receive any state funding operating solely as a preschool, as it intends to do for at least the next two years.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.