Everett Station now hosts a Bezos Academy, which offers tuition-free early childhood education for 60 students. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Everett Station now hosts a Bezos Academy, which offers tuition-free early childhood education for 60 students. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Free Bezos-backed preschool opens in Everett

Kids are admitted to the free preschool in Everett Station by lottery. The school pays no rent in exchange for improvements.

EVERETT — A tuition-free early learning center funded by Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos opened in Everett Station last week. The school won’t be paying rent in the city-owned space, but school staff members say they’ve already invested heavily in the community and that families are reaping the benefits.

Plans for a Bezos Academy location in Everett were first announced last January, with Mayor Cassie Franklin touting the no-cost learning center as key in getting caregivers back in the workforce post-pandemic. The school, which already operates several other facilities in the Puget Sound region, struck a 10-year lease deal with the city for a 3,800-square-foot space on the first floor of Everett Station.

The school, backed by the world’s third-wealthiest man, doesn’t pay rent to the city. Instead, it agreed to improve the space. Danielle Degges, head of school at the Everett location, said so far that’s included renovating the empty space into three classrooms housing 20 students each, adding exclusive-use bathrooms with child-size fixtures and an entrance separate from the station’s main entrance. They’ve also added a playground outside.

Everett Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee, a supporter of Bezos Academy in Everett since first proposed, estimated the total cost of the school’s improvements to the space at over $1 million. Previously, he said the former office space sat empty, with not much besides carpet and lighting installed.

Bezos Academies operate on a Montessori-inspired curriculum, Degges said, and class time usually involves a mix of art, music, outdoor time and learning “at each child’s own pace.”

School days run from around 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and kids attend class year-round, Degges said. Three meals are provided per day catered by Kindred Kitchen, an arm of local nonprofit HopeWorks.

When the school opened its doors for the first time on March 2, Degges said the staff surprisingly didn’t encounter many teary eyes that often come along with a kid’s first day of class.

“For many of our students, this is their first preschool experience, and we know tears will come from time to time,” Degges said. “But the engagement and trust of the Everett team has been full force and really supported the children feeling safe and happy to start the day with us.”

A classroom inside the Bezos Academy in Everett. (Courtesy photo)

A classroom inside the Bezos Academy in Everett. (Courtesy photo)

Any child whose family earns 400% or less of the federal poverty level is eligible to apply to the school, and half of the spots are reserved for families earning less than 250% of that level. In Everett, a family of four making less than $69,375 would qualify for those spots.

Admission is determined by lottery, with preference given to kids in foster care or those experiencing homelessness as well as siblings of existing students and children of school staff members, Degges said. All 54 available seats are full, but families can apply to a wait list to be notified if a space becomes available.

The school employs regional teams of social workers and specialists who work with students and families to address extenuating circumstances like learning disabilities and problems at home, Degges said, which has been “a big deal” among families who’ve enrolled.

Aaron DiGruccio’s daughter, Luna, just wrapped up her first full week of class at Bezos Academy. Getting Luna accepted was relatively easy, DiGruccio said: Her mom applied after hearing about the free program from a friend, and Luna was admitted just a couple of days later.

She predictably was a little wary of her new routine for the first couple of days, DiGruccio said, but quickly adjusted and now loves going to school each day.

After attending both public and private schools, Luna’s older brother is 13 and has been homeschooled for the past two years, DiGruccio said. In comparison, he said he’s found the academy’s model to be preferable and would apply the same methods to his son’s high school experience if he could.

DiGruccio said the Montessori-style approach used by the school was a major draw for him and Luna’s mother, Leeanna. They like its emphasis on individual learning styles and avoidance of standardized testing, among other things, and believe in the school’s model enough that they make the 20-minute drive to drop Luna off before work each morning. And besides the added benefits of full-day childcare and provided meals, DiGruccio said he appreciates the school’s commitment to give back to the community.

“If you are going to enter a space and involve its people in your activities, causing a mutual net benefit is the best possible goal to strive for, and we believe the Bezos Academy is demonstrating this initiative continuously,” DiGruccio said.

Eernissee said the school hasn’t been open long enough to collect any data on its success in Everett, but he feels confident it’s filling a critical gap in the availability of affordable childcare in the region. He hopes more Bezos Academy locations will arrive in Everett before long, with one in the south of the city at the top of his priorities list.

“The need here far outstrips the supply,” Eernissee said. “So this is something that we just think is a fantastic thing to continue to support. And it doesn’t hurt that the kids attending are confirmed to be the cutest in the world.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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