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Opening Doors to Children on Richmond Highway

Hopkins House will open an affordable pre-school in 2007.

When officials at Hopkins House decided to build an affordable pre-school for children living in Washington Square Apartments and other neighborhoods on Richmond Highway, they began with a detailed vision of what it should look like and what it should offer. The non-profit agency wanted a building with two wings that acted as structural open arms to the community, said J. Glenn Hopkins, its president (and no relation to the organization’s namesake). "We told the architect that we wanted a facility that poor people would find inviting and that rich people would find inviting." Hopkins House examined every angle of the project that would be one of the largest expansions in its 68-year history. But there was one question it refused to anticipate before the architect’s design came back, Hopkins said, "How much is the damn thing going to cost us?"

"We never told the architect there was a limit on the project,” Hopkins explained, because they planned to raise whatever it would take to build the concept they imagined. The facility defies every expectation of what an affordable pre-school should look like. “It will be a high quality center,” said Hopkins, “defined as having the best qualified staff available in the region, the best facilities around and a nationally recognized curriculum." These facilities will include an internet-based youth technology center with 25 computer terminals, an indoor discovery center that Hopkins described as a “biosphere” with living plants growing in real dirt, small animals and an fish in an aquarium. Hopkins confirmed that the school’s 96 students would be allowed to play in the dirt floor.

The school will also have facilities for the adult population of the Route 1 corridor, particularly the neighborhoods located near the corner of Forest Place and Richmond Highway (near Smitty’s Lumber) where the 1.6 acre site is located. The building will house a community room that can be used for meetings of citizens associations, English classes and Hopkins House can run its adult workshops for mothers and fathers. Hopkins said the center is scheduled to open in spring 2007.

WEST POTOMAC High School principal Rima Vesilind was the principal of Woodley Hills Elementary in 2001 when Hopkins House was planning the facility. She wrote a letter to the county in support of the project. “We needed some kind of a quality pre-school program for the kids who live on the Route 1 area,” she explained. “Kids would come in to me sometimes having never touched a book before.” And despite dire finances, their mothers were often unable to get a job. “We had a significant number of parents at that time who couldn’t work because they were staying home with their preschool children.”

“We have a lot of single mothers out there,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. “Obviously to support themselves they need to work. But the amount of money they would have to pay for quality childcare far outstrips their means.” Hyland said the state’s slashing of childcare funds, which could reduce the number of children in Fairfax County childcare programs, makes the new center particularly timely. “Affordable childcare is something that’s absolutely essential for these parents to work.”

Hopkins said that shifts in demographics and population led Hopkins House, which is based in Old Town Alexandria, to shift its services. Hopkins House first began working in Mount Vernon in the 1990’s, when it opened an office in the old Michael’s building on Richmond Highway to provide condoms and information about HIV/AIDS. Workers there noticed that more and more low-income families were moving into the Mount Vernon area. Meanwhile, Hopkins said, single mothers at the Hopkins House pre-school on Princess Street, were pulling their children from school because they could no longer afford to live in Alexandria. "We discovered that people were leaving and going south," he said. "We decided we would do what we had always done, which is follow our population to where they live."

Seven teachers created Hopkins House in 1939 after the federal government cut funds for a black nursery. The named the new nursery after a philanthropic doctor. It moved twice more, always following the populations it served, before settling into its current location in 1972. It was working with children, youth, the elderly and families in crisis, and a decade and a half later it began doing some of the earliest AIDS outreach in the area.

But in the 1990’s, Hopkins House began to cut back its programming. "This agency, for a good 40 years of its existence, was trying to be everything for everyone in need,” Hopkins explained. “We found that to be very ineffective." Hopkins is now focusing its efforts almost exclusively on the preschool it runs in Alexandria and on the one it will open in Mount Vernon. It also has an economics program for mothers, called “MOM,” (Managing Our Money) and one for fathers, called “DAD” (Dedication, Appreciation, Determination), that encourages fathers to read books about sports to their children.

AFTER UNSUCESSFULLY trying to buy the Michael’s location it had rented, Hopkins House bought the Forest Place property in 2001. The architect estimated it would cost $2.1 million to build the facility Hopkins House wanted, and the organization began a campaign to raise the money. A breakthrough occurred in December 2004 when the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia (ABC-Va), an association of construction-businesses agreed to donate materials and labor for the new building. “We look for projects that impact the community that we work in,” said Jami O’Neill, the community service chairperson for ABC-Va. She estimated ABC-Va’s contribution to the project would be worth about $1.5 million and include concrete, framing, electrical, mechanical, drywall and carpeting.

Hopkins said the innovative building that will emerge fits the Hopkins House philosophy that discrimination with good intentions is still discrimination. Hopkins House will accept any student regardless of income level. "We don't like this notion that blacks are in one section of town and whites are in another. When it comes to children, there is one door." He said he wants the new school to be "the best game in town.” This could mean that wealthy parents choose the school for their children, taking a spot from a poor child. Hopkins is fine with that. "We're willing to take that risk because I think that the worst risk to take is to start discriminating."

"If a wealthy person walks in the door before a poor person, that wealthy person gets in."

Everyone at Hopkins House in Alexandria is required to pay some tuition, ranging from $5 per week to the maximum of $210. Hopkins said about 40 percent of students pay the full rate. “It really just creates an environment where the potential for people helping each other in the long term can happen," he said of the school’s mix of wealth that allows people who may never have met one another to mingle on common ground. But Hopkins said that Hopkins House will advertise its new school to low-income neighborhoods, and not in high-income ones.

“Rich people have choices when it comes to educating their children,” he said. “Poor people have one choice, the one they can afford. We want to give poor people only one choice, and that is the best pre-school."