A donation from the daughter of Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett will fund three schools for low-income kids in Nebraska and an early childhood institute that one university leader on Monday called a "game changer."

Susie Buffett gave the money to the University of Nebraska Foundation to establish the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, a research, education, outreach and policy center designed to address early childhood development and education. The institute will promote the development of children from birth to age 8, especially those vulnerable because of poverty, abuse and other challenges.

The university, along with private and federal sources, plans to match the gift to create an endowment worth more than $100 million, according to NU President James B. Milliken. The university would not provide a total amount for Buffett's gift Monday.

The institute and others like it can be "game-changers in early childhood development and education," Milliken said.

"It is more important than ever that we look at education as a continuum," he said.

Buffett chairs the Sherwood Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, which support early childhood initiatives nationally. Her gift will not pay for university facilities but for three new Educare Centers in Nebraska modeled after centers in Omaha and elsewhere.

Educare Centers serve low-income children age birth to 5 years through programs that develop early skills and nurture parent-child relationships. Begun in 2005, there are now 12 centers in seven states, including two in Omaha. Each typically serves 150 to 200 children.

The Buffett institute will partner with the Educare Centers, providing assessment resources and graduate teachers from its early childhood education programs.

No decisions have been made on locations for the three centers, although Lincoln is being considered for one, said Dan Pedersen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. An Educare Center in Nebraska costs about $8 million to build, he said.

Buffett's gift would pay for construction of the Educare Centers, he said, but public funding would have to be found to pay for their ongoing expenses. That public funding likely would include Head Start funds, Title I money, child care subsidies for low-income parents and a portion of the state aid Lincoln Public Schools gets for its preschool students.

Pedersen said Lincoln's Head Start provider, its public school board and the NU Foundation must vote to partner with each other to create the centers before they are built. He said he expects locations for the centers to be decided within two years.

For the past year-and-a-half, LPS, NU and Lincoln's Head Start provider, Community Action Partnership, have been discussing the possibility of a local Educare Center. They needed only an "anchor" donor to build the center. That's where Buffett's gift comes in, said Vi See, executive director of the Community Action Partnership.

The partnership, which used to be the Lincoln Action Program, administers the Head Start program in Lincoln but contracts with LPS to serve 444 of its 714 Head Start children. See said the partnership needs to find funding to pay for ongoing operations of a potential Educare Center before it approves an agreement to operate such a center in Lincoln.

Unlike at Head Start, which typically offers half-day services during the academic year, Educare Centers typically offer full-day services 12 months a year, she said.

Marilyn Moore, associate superintendent for instruction at LPS, said one of the dilemmas for the district is that if an Educare Center were to open, it would offer more comprehensive care for the poorest children but likely would reduce the total number of children LPS could serve because of limited funding.

Federal money has allowed LPS to serve only about a third of the preschool children living in poverty, she said.

"We're trying to figure out how we could do it without it being fewer students," she said.

As for the Buffett institute, a location likely will be decided once an executive director is hired, Milliken said, probably within a year.

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The Buffett institute will focus on the developmental span from birth to age 8, the period during which children make their greatest gains in cognitive, behavioral, language and social-emotional growth, research shows. The institute will integrate teaching, research and outreach from disciplines spanning all four NU campuses -- Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney and the medical center -- with an emphasis on using research to inform public policy in practical ways.

Pedersen said the institute will use research on early childhood development to improve early childhood programs nationally.

Three divisions will make up the institute:

* A research program will advance the science of early childhood by developing solutions for the challenges facing at-risk children.

* An education and professional development program will ensure early childhood teachers and providers have access to information and support in implementation.

* An outreach and policy program will work to ensure information on the best practices for children, families and schools is made available to practitioners and policymakers.

Buffett said too many children are denied opportunities because they enter kindergarten already behind and often struggle to catch up well into adulthood.

"It's important that they get the right start and a lot of good opportunities in those early years," she said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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