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Heights Foundation holds groundbreaking ceremony for $11.8M learning, education center in Harlem Heights neighborhood

Andrew Wigdor, Fort Myers News-Press

The Heights Center is growing, and with its growth comes the promise of further educational commitment to families in Lee County’s low-income Harlem Heights community.

The Heights Foundation held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday morning for the new Heights Early Learning and Education Center, which will house the GLAD Kids Early Learning Center and the Harlem Heights Community Charter School. The three-story, 36,000-square-foot building comes at a total cost of $11.8 million, with 82% of that figure already raised through a silent campaign.

The new building, which will be attached to the east side of old Heights Center on Hagie Drive, will allow the foundation’s services to expand, with the GLAD Kids Early Learning Center being housed on the first floor of the new building and the charter school on the second and third.

409d9487-51d5-4026-899b-5bf2377e1cfc-FNP_0918_ai_heights01Harlem Heights Community Charter School students Eliceo Martin-Miguel, left, and Christopher Adorno, right, participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for a 36,000-square-foot, three-story building that will house the GLAD early learning center and classrooms for the charter school on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. The students are joined by Heights Center founder Kathryn Kelly and other administrators and dignitaries. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

The new facility will include a multipurpose room that will be utilized as an assembly space and a dining area with a capacity to provide meals to 180 students. It will also be fitted with “inspiring” music and art labs that give students access to an outdoor roof terrace, where aquaponics and hydroponics gardens will be located, to encourage environmental exploring and further artistic inspiration. An outdoor play pavilion will also be available for PE exercises and activities.

Heights Foundation board members and school representatives took part in the groundbreaking, donning white helmets and gold-tipped shovels. Some students from the charter school and the GLAD Center also got a chance to grab miniature shovels and lift some dirt.

Jan-Erik Hustrulid, the Heights Foundation board chair, thanked those in attendance at the Wednesday ceremony.

“We thank each and every one of you for your passion, your commitments, your investments and your love for the Heights Center, for the Heights Charter School and for our kids and families in the Harlem Heights neighborhood,” he said.

“Kathryn Kelly has worked tirelessly for many, many years to bring this to a reality,” he added.

Kelly, the president, CEO and founder of the Heights Foundation, spoke before the groundbreaking and reflected on the start of the organization, which came about after she decided to take part in a delivery of Thanksgiving turkeys to families in the Harlem Heights community 20 years ago. After that trip, she recognized the need that existed among those families.

According to a Heights Center news release, the poverty rate for Harlem Heights children is more than twice that of the county average, and family income in the neighborhood falls 40% below the county average.

“When farm fields gave way to development in the 1970s, what had been a strong, farm-working community suffered severe job losses,” she said. “And kids growing up in multi-generational poverty faced countless roadblocks in climbing out.”

She said that every child of the Harlem Heights neighborhood deserves a fair shot at education.

“Our kids are valuable, and if they are, there is no such thing as a throwaway kid,” she said.

c73eef36-ef70-433d-a6fa-11aa8a0e707c-FNP_0918_ai_heights06Jan-Erik Hustrulid, left, looks at a virtual reality rendering of the new building for the Harlem Heights Community Charter School and GLAD early learning center on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, following the groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

Kelly told The News-Press that the new building should be fully constructed and functional in about a year, alleviating the crowding issue that was beginning to emerge in the old center.

“Now, (the students) will have their own identity,” she said. “We’re not sticking some in classrooms over here and some over there … They’ll all be together in their own building. I think that brings them unity and brings them closer together.”

“(The children) are looking forward to it,” she added. “They’re so excited.”

The old Heights Center, a 14,000-square-foot building, is currently home to the foundation’s community center and the charter school. It opened in 2013.

Kelly said the primary purpose of the original building was to create a community center. So, once the charter school moves into the new building, the old center will focus more on adult services such as daytime classes and programs.

The GLAD Center merged with the Heights Foundation earlier this year and will be moving from their current building to the new Heights Center once it opens. GLAD is a childcare and pre-K center that serves more than 80 children from birth until 5 years old and provides developmental and educational services for low-income families.

Kelly said the GLAD Center’s current location on Gladiolus Drive is old and in need of extensive repairs. Due to this, GLAD previously had donors who pledged money to construct a new building, and since it merged with the Heights Foundation, the donors agreed to direct the money to the Heights Foundation’s new facility.

“The fact that we had donors step up for us right off the bat was very important to us,” Kelly said.

Charter school to add fifth grade class with new facility

The tuition-free public school previously accepted K-4 students but will expand to fifth grade with the new facility. The school opened in 2016, and, at the time, accepted a kindergarten and first grade class. Since then, the charter school has added a grade every year, with fifth being added in 2020.

Currently, 108 children are enrolled in the charter school. The new building will allow the foundation to teach approximately 180, Kelly said.

“We don’t have space for (fifth grade), except for the new building,” she said. “We will be a true elementary school, K through 5.”

384b0741-4fd3-485e-bec8-4de8e0e95a02-FNP_0918_ai_heights04Harlem Heights Community Charter School fourth grade students recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the groundbreaking ceremony for the latest addition to the Heights Center campus, a 36,000 square-foot, three-story building that will house new classrooms for the Harlem Heights Community Charter School and GLAD early learning center on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in south Fort Myers. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

The school was created after the foundation fully realized the impact it was having on area children, according to Kelly.

Summer camp and after-school programs have been provided by the foundation since its inception. Kelly said the foundation began to collect data on the kids who attended these services and realized the children weren’t on grade-level when it came to reading and math.

The foundation then decided to tweak the after-school programs to make them more “academic,” hiring two teachers to assist in the process. Children began to quickly improve, leading the foundation to create a fully-fledged school.

“Within one semester, we had kids who had been failing or making C’s and D’s that all of a sudden, they’re grades were getting better,” she said. “If we could get kids on grade-level in one or two semesters after having them a couple of hours a day, what could we do if we had them all day long?”

Reach Andrew Wigdor at and on Twitter @andrew_wigdor.