It’s happening all across the country.

Old shopping malls or large retail stores are being turned into schools, churches and community centers.

That may soon happen here in Grand Island.

There is a proposal to turn the former Shopko building into an Early Learning Center for the Grand Island Public Schools.

Shopko closed its stores throughout the Midwest in June. It fell victim to the trend in retail of brick and mortar stores closing as more items are purchased online over the internet. Previously, both Younkers and Sears at the Conestoga Mall had closed.

So the old Shopko store on North Webb Road sits vacant. As it’s unlikely that another retailer will take that space, owner of the building and local businessman Ray O’Connor has generously offered to donate the building to the school district.

The building has approximately 50,000 square feet of space and is valued at $3.3 million.

This is an extremely generous gift on the part of the O’Connors and would help the school district meet a critical need for early education.

Currently, the school district is short on space at the Early Learning Center in the old Engleman Elementary School on West Capital Avenue. It has explored finding a new location for the last decade. Now it is fortunate to have this proposal.

However, it won’t come without a cost. Despite the O’Connors’ donation, it’s estimated the school district would have to spend $6.35 million to remodel the building into nine classrooms and a large meeting room.

That would be a good investment. The importance of early childhood education is immense. Students who enter kindergarten prepared for school are much more likely to graduate.

And Grand Island has a large number of children who could benefit from early childhood education. That is because there is a large immigrant population where English isn’t spoken at home. If these children can learn some English before they start kindergarten, they are more likely to be successful.

There also is a large number of children who come from low-income homes where the parents are unable to afford early learning experiences for their children. Early childhood classes provided by the school district can get these students interested in reading and help prepare them for school.

So a successful early childhood education program can bring valuable returns in that the children served will be more likely to succeed in school and then when they are older and have graduated will be able to become productive members of the workforce.

A larger location for the early childhood program is vastly needed and the former Shopko building will allow the school district to do a lot of exciting things with the children.

Everyone would like to see a new business or store occupy the space, but in today’s business climate that is unlikely to happen. So this plan is a great way to put that space to use for a public good.

The proposal is a great example of a public/private partnership that will improve the education of a lot of children.

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