In the courtyard of the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center, a fountain dedicated to St. Philomena dominates the landscape, a reminder that the center was built on a wing and a prayer.

Phyllis Landrieu, a former Orleans Parish School Board president who considers the learning center her life’s work, learned of the saint from a relative in the early planning days. Because the saint is considered a patron of youth and lost causes and her name is similar to Landrieu’s first name, the saint seemed to fit the situation. Today, Landrieu refers to the saint often when she relates the story behind the center, a five-year project that opened in Central City in August with 60 kindergarten students.

With good intentions and no funding, a group of educators and community leaders found each other after Hurricane Katrina and all agreed that New Orleans’ rebuilt education system needed to focus on early childhood education to close the achievement gap between poor and more affluent children. At the time, all they had was an agreement of need and a host of naysayers, but they trudged forth anyway.

Pat Cooper, an experienced early childhood educator, addressed their group early. Landrieu called him two days after his presentation to convince him to take charge of the group’s efforts to mimic early childhood centers he had opened in St. Francisville and McComb, Miss.

“I don’t have any money,” she told him, but somehow the money materialized soon after Cooper expressed interest. Landrieu found a banker willing to guarantee funding for his four-year contract and other expenses if she came up with 10 people who would guarantee repayment of $100,000 each if she couldn’t raise the funds elsewhere. She says she found 10 guarantors, but none of them ever had to make good on their promise to help repay the loan. The money came from other means, including a November fundraiser that brought in about $350,000.

“St. Philomena helped us,” Landrieu says. Every time the project jumped another hurdle, “We’d say thanks, St. Philomena.”

Another “St. Philomena moment” occurred when FEMA upped its proposed reimbursement of $500,000 for the damaged Mahalia Jackson school on Jackson Avenue to $4.6 million. The Louisiana Recovery Authority matched it with another $4.6 million, Landrieu says. The city of New Orleans threw in another $1 million for a community center, and the Orleans Parish School Board funded the remainder of the $17 million project.

Now the open-aired, mid-century building of terrazzo floors and covered walkways holds classrooms for early childhood education, an auditorium, a New Orleans branch library for neighborhood residents and extra space for parenting and computer classes. The Quincy Jones Foundation also has identified the school as a future site for music education, Landrieu says.

The school is on the site of the former McDonogh 36 school, which was the first integrated school in New Orleans, says Arnold Spears, who has lived next door to the school since he was born in 1950. The present school, named after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, was built in ’57.

The learning center and others like it around the country are founded on the theory that current reform efforts are focusing on the wrong age groups. Early childhood proponents say that economically disadvantaged children’s full potential is often lost between age 1 and 5 because those are the “sponge” years when children’s brains are the most adaptable to language and other kinds of development. They say that low-income parents, who are likely to have little education themselves, are less tuned into the importance of teaching their young ones the basics such as their ABCs, how to count to 10 and basic vocabulary.

Head Start, a federal program, was established on that theory, but it hasn’t been able to fill all the nation’s early childhood education needs. State and local efforts to fill the gap have faltered because of budget shortfalls.

Moreover, under pressure to do more with less money, some semi-autonomous charter schools are beginning to charge tuition for pre-kindergarten students for families who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Everybody talks about how important it (early childhood education) is,” Cooper says, “but they never put up the money.”

The repercussions of not teaching economically disadvantaged students at an earlier age include juvenile crime and the costs of incarceration, he says.

“If I were king of the world, I’d put all the money in early childhood education and prepare 5-year-olds to learn,” says Cooper. “Computers, accountability – that’s all after-the-fact stuff. It’s not about stuff, it’s about nurturing.”

Another factor in poor performance for low-income students is health problems. With that in mind, the learning center also focuses on providing health services that will help families who receive Medicaid get regular medical checkups. Absences due to frequent illness can lead to children being held back a grade level, school officials say.

If students are held back too often, they become older than their classmates and often eventually drop out. The learning center addresses this problem by providing on-site services that offer basic health and eye care.

Landrieu says that early childhood education programs in St. Francisville and McComb, Miss., have been instrumental in substantially reducing cases of juvenile crime and teen pregnancy. Graduation rates have also improved. In McComb, for example, graduation rates climbed from 77 percent in 1997, the year the program began, to 95 percent in 2005, Landrieu says.

Because early childhood education programs have made such a difference in other school systems, Landrieu says that school officials here are planning to open additional sites in other parts of the city. “I’m scrounging around all the time, raising money.

The Early Childhood and Family Learning Foundation will hold a concert Oct. 27 in the Mahalia Jackson school theater to raise funds for the foundation’s ongoing efforts to expand the program. “From Symphony to Jazz to Kids” will feature the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and performances by Ellis Marsalis, Leah Chase, Irvin Mayfield and others.