Tucked between the roar of train whistles and the soaring sound of planes, the Airport Way Discovery Center opened its doors to 60 preschoolers last week.

It’s been a long time coming, according to Umatilla Morrow County Head Start executive director Maureen McGrath.

When the agency received federal grant funding for the project back in 2016, they were hoping to open up a center the following fall, but had trouble finding the right location that would meet federal requirements.

They were able to strike a good deal with the city of Hermiston for the city property on Airport Way, where the Discovery Center now stands, according to UMCHS associate director Dan Daltoso.

A transportation depot for Hermiston-area UMCHS buses is currently under construction at the location. Currently, UMCHS’s transportation depot is on Diagonal Road.

Following the start of classes at the Discovery Center, the Downtown Center for Early Learning, located on Main Street, is being repurposed as a training site for housing personnel focused on health and safety.

“It is always there though, if something happens and we need a classroom,” McGrath said.

The downtown center opened last spring, and provided full-day classes for 40 preschool-aged children.

The new center on Airport Way has capacity for 60 children, with three classrooms and separate office spaces for teachers who provide the full-day classes.

“If we can give teachers a space away, it gives opportunity for reflection, and for people to have dialogues about best meeting children’s needs,” McGrath said.

The offices also have two-way mirrors, so teachers can keep a watchful eye over classes while also having a separate space for one-on-one meetings.

When 4-year-old Blake Griffin — who attended the downtown preschool — fell while playing outside the Discovery Center earlier this week, he couldn’t have been happier, according to his mother Mariaha Wilhelm.

“Blake likes the grass outside, and he didn’t get hurt,” Wilhelm said. “Kids need to not be enclosed.”

The previous preschool only had play space available on padded asphalt.

Wilhelm said she was excited to bring Blake to the new preschool.

“Blake is really smart. I felt his social skills needed preschool. Having a schedule has helped him,” she said.

Daltoso added that not having an on-site warming kitchen in the previous location meant transportation costs were adding up.

“(We were) trying to do services in a location that wasn’t ideal for kids,” he said. “We were able to put together a pretty nice facility.”

Daltoso said the Downtown Center for Early Learning had more spacious classrooms, but that the size of the rooms doesn’t matter so much as what teachers are able to accomplish within them.

Michelle Childs, a preschool teacher at the new center, said the first week at school was all about breathing techniques and simple life skills. She said she’s using counting and patterns to incorporate math themes into the learning.

Dennis Julian, the new Head Start director for UMCHS, said the new location presents opportunities to partner with the industries who also call Airport Way home. He hopes kids will soon be able to visit the airport.

“Where we find ourselves here, we’re not in a neighborhood,” McGrath said.

“But we are smack-dab in the middle of science. We have an airport across the way, a railroad that runs behind us. This is going to ignite children’s imagination around science and technology.”

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