Neal Early Learning Center to Open in Boardman This Fall

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Neal Early Learning Center
The Neal Early Learning Center in Boardman is set to be ready by fall. (Photo: Umatilla-Morrow Head Start)

Development projects around the Port of Morrow now include something for a much younger customer – preschoolers. Next to the SAGE Center and Blue Mountain Community College’s (BMCC) new Boardman Workforce Training Center is a new project, the Neal Early Learning Center, which will open this fall and offer early learning opportunities for area children.

The center is a project of the Port of Morrow, which partnered with the Morrow County School District, Umatilla-Morrow Head Start and the Intermountain Education Service District (IMESD). Funding for this collaboration was made possible by the Port of Morrow, with some grants from the state as well as partner contributions. The capital costs approached $2.1 million.

The center is named in honor of Gary and Kathy Neal, longtime residents of eastern Oregon. Gary is the general manager for the Port of Morrow, where he has worked since 1989. Through her 17 years of service on the IMESD Board of Directors, Kathy said she has come to realize the great importance of early learning in the lives of children. “I really believe that providing a strong foundation for our youngest children is what they need to be successful in school and life – data shows this. We need to be giving our kids the best opportunity we can from the beginning,” Kathy said.

Kathy Neal said the center came to fruition through a shared vision of many individuals in the area: business professionals at the Port of Morrow, Morrow County commissioners, IMESD Superintendent Dr. Mark Mulvihill, BMCC President Cam Preus, Umatilla-Morrow Head Start Director Maureen McGrath and the team there, other educators and support from the state of Oregon through State Rep. Greg Smith.

“That’s the way we get things done in Eastern Oregon – it’s never one person. We are really good at collaborating and sharing resources to accomplish what we want,” she said.

The Neal Early Learning Center will be the site for several programs. One is a preschool program of the Morrow County School District (MCSD) for three and four year olds, a free program open to any families in the school district. Dirk Dirksen, superintendent of the MCSD, said the new

center offers a positive step for educating the youngest students in the county. “We are trying to shift some of our resources to the earliest learners, because we know if they are ready for kindergarten, they are reading well in third grade, freshmen are on track and more students are graduating,” Dirksen said. He said he appreciates the efforts of all the partners to make the center a reality and looks forward to working together to maximize the center for community needs. The school district also offers preschool programs in Irrigon and Heppner.

Umatilla-Morrow Head Start will manage the facility and operations including three classrooms, an adjacent infant/toddler classroom hosted by BMCC, as well as home visitors, parent educators and child and family advocates. The IMESD’s Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education program will have a classroom, too. “This site signifies how deeply the community values its children and their future,” said McGrath. “It’s a place to learn, to grow, to connect and ultimately to succeed.”

The proximity of the Neal Early Learning Center to the Boardman Workforce Training Center is not lost on Kathy Neal and Dirksen. They said having a place to educate adults alongside a place to educate the children of those adults is a definite asset. “It’s all about supporting a community of learners, whether they are three or four year olds or 35 and 50 year olds, the connection between facilities and partners like BMCC, schools and businesses is tying that effort together,” said Dirksen. Training and supporting employees for work in the area is crucial, Kathy Neal said, and having the Early Learning Center for those families makes a stronger community, and entices young people to return to Morrow County to work and live.

Gary and Kathy Neal’s son and his family recently moved to the area to raise their family, and their three-year-old grandson will be in the first class at the center. “We are 100 percent sure the learning center is going to make an impact in a really positive way,” Kathy Neal said.

The Neal Early Learning Center will have its official opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 3 p.m. For more information about Morrow County School District’s preschool program, visit the district’s website.