Limited money, space deprive kids of preschool

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This spring, the Board of Education asked the state for $50.6 million to keep existing state prekindergarten programs up and running and open classrooms in 89 more schools.

“Any school that asked, we included in the proposal,” says Velma Thomas, director of early childhood education. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten what we asked for, but it’s important to show the need.”

Instead, the department ended up with $39.7 million—about $3 million more than last year. But the new school administration used the increase to help balance the general operating budget, taking advantage of new block-grant funding from the state. (For an explanation of block grants, see CATALYST, September 1995.) As a result, Chicago won’t open any new state prekindergartens this year.

To further cut costs, the board also fired 81 employees who screen children throughout the year, including over the summer; the move could delay efforts to identify and recruit “at-risk” children for next fall, Thomas cautions. (The state prekindergarten program serves children whose developmental level is such that they are considered “at risk” of educational failure.)

During the school year, teachers and aides will be solely responsible for screening. “The slack may not be too bad this year, but I don’t know what the impact will be next year,” says Alice Moss, state prekindergarten manager for Chicago.

Limited funds are but one obstacle the school system faces as it struggles to prepare youngsters for school. Many schools have no space for prekindergarten programs, and there is a shortage of bilingual teachers with early childhood training.

Moreover, traditional teaching in the primary grades is out of sync with how young children learn, early childhood experts say; as a result, children who do get preschool education often lose the gains they’ve made once they begin regular schooling.

“There’s no doubt that schools aren’t doing what they should” to improve teaching, says Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development. “It’s not a vaccination—you can’t just say, ‘Aha, we gave them preschool, so it’s OK.’ “

Still, Chicago’s department of early childhood education gets good marks. “The highest quality of [preschool] programs are in the schools,” says Barbara Jean Cizak, executive director of the Chicago Association for the Education of Young Children. Schools are being urged to seek national accreditation for their prekindergarten programs, and the school system is subcontracting with private day care centers to provide prekindergarten programs in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools. (See stories on pages 15 and 9.)

Quantity, however, remains as much an issue as quality.

At least a quarter of the city’s low-income children aged 3 to 5—who are most “at-risk” and need preschool the most—can’t get it. Excluding children in publicly funded day care centers—which often don’t provide educational programs—the percentage of youngsters without access to service climbs to almost 40.

The citywide waiting list for state prekindergarten alone is close to 2,500; some schools have local lists of over 100 children, board staff say. (State prekindergarten is the major source of preschool in Chicago schools. Other types of preschool include Head Starts and child-parent centers, both of which are funded by federal money; and state Chapter 1 preschools, which schools have launched on their own.)

As demand grows, the need is becoming more critical, too. A recent board study suggests that children now are entering school less well-prepared than they were in the late 1980s. (See story.)

Finding money

Schools have relied on state Chapter 1 to pay for a range of new initiatives since reform began, but relatively few have used it to start preschools.

Only 54 schools budgeted state Chapter 1 for preschool in 1994-95, according to an analysis by the Chicago Panel on School Policy. In contrast, four times as many spent money on art and music programs, for instance.

Of the principals who did open state Chapter 1 preschools, those contacted by CATALYST said they were merely replacing Head Starts that had been transferred out of their schools to community agencies in 1991 and 1992. The board’s early childhood department tried to replace them with state prekindergartens, but wasn’t able to in every case. (See story on Head Start.)

Pilsen Community Academy is one example. The school lost two Head Starts, but got funding for only one state prekindergarten. So, to keep the second classroom open, Principal Ana Espinoza used state Chapter 1 that had previously paid for three teacher aides.

Since the city’s Department of Human Services, which oversees Head Start, removed furniture and materials purchased with Head Start funds, Espinoza had to use state Chapter 1 for “start-up” as well as operating costs. Teacher Aurelia Spurlark got about $7,000 to re-equip her classroom, and, she notes, “That’s not a lot of money when a chair costs $50 and you need 30.” Under the state prekindergarten program, each classroom usually gets about $20,000 for furniture and equipment.

Cost is a significant barrier to any school that wants to open its own preschool, the board’s Thomas acknowledges. Salaries for a teacher and an aide, child-size furniture, rugs for children to sit on for story hours, and educational toys and games can approach $100,000. Other popular uses of state Chapter 1, such as after-school tutoring, don’t require nearly that much money, Thomas notes. With preschool, “you’re not just supplementing, like with other programs,” she says.

Finding space

“It might be stretching it a bit, but for every classroom [now open], we could open up another one,” says Moss. “Actually, that’s not too far off. Every school that has one says they could use another.”

But in many schools, there simply is no space. Of the 89 schools that asked for state prekindergarten programs this year, only 61 had space available, according to the board’s funding proposal.

The problem is particularly acute in Latino neighborhoods, such as Humboldt Park, which tend to have the most overcrowded schools. “Where there’s the most kids, there’s the least space,” Moss observes.

In some cases, the board has rented private space. For example, on the Near Northwest Side, prekindergartens for Barry and Falconer schools are located in a shopping mall.

“I went out myself and scouted the neighborhood and talked to [developers] when the mall was under construction,” says Barry Principal Alice Vila. “I’d prefer to have it at the school for supervisory reasons, but I don’t want to do without [a prekindergarten]. If we’re going to have any chance with [educating] kids, I have to have one.”

To solve the supervision dilemma, principals from both schools rotate daily visits to the site. And, Vila points out, “By clustering them together, it’s made it safer and gets teachers working together.”

The board is reluctant to rent, however, because of the high cost. For example, the rent, maintenance and taxes for off-site state prekindergartens for four schools (Chappell, Hibbard, Barry and Falconer) will top $110,000 this year, according to board documents.

Sometimes, off-site space needs to be renovated to meet facilities guidelines set by the state Board of Education. For instance, state prekindergarten classrooms must have running water and a sink in the room. Toilet facilities must either be in a separate section of the classroom or be nearby on the same floor, because “children [that age] are too little to line up for a trip to the bathroom,” Thomas notes. And classrooms must be on the ground floor or basement, so that small children are not forced to climb stairs.

Then, if the board pays for renovations and the school decides for some reason that it doesn’t want the program, “you’re leaving your money there,” Thomas notes.

At some schools, the board has used demountable units for prekindergartens. But the board has pretty much abandoned that practice because of the cost.

Some overcrowded schools have offered prekindergarten after school, usually from 2:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. But last year, the board stopped paying overtime to assistant principals or other administrators who stayed after school to supervise. At least one school, Pablo Casals, decided to pick up the tab with state Chapter 1.

“The more of these kinds of expenses we have, the fewer children we can serve,” notes Thomas, who adds that the state requires that a certain number of children be served if a district receives a certain amount of money.

All these space problems prompted the board to turn to subcontracting with private day care centers. That solution also solves a major problem faced by working parents: Finding day care for the half day when their child is not in preschool.

“That’s one of the problems with Head Start and state prekindergarten— it’s not designed for working families,” says Carol Dellahousaye, program associate for Voices for Illinois Children. “It’s missing the care component.”

So far, the subcontracting program has been judged a success. (See story.)

Lack of space raises another issue for state prekindergartens. Ideally, children would start at age 3 and continue for two years; that’s how the program is designed. However, 4-year-olds get priority for enrollment because they will enter kindergarten in a year. But with space at a premium and so many children on waiting lists, not many schools can accommodate more than a few 3-year-olds. As a result, most children are getting only one year of prekindergarten.

“Being 4 is one of my criteria” for enrollment, says Vila. “I just can’t take them at 3.”

In 1993-94, only 2,000 of the 12,000 state prekindergartners in Chicago—or 16 percent—were in their second year, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. In contrast, 29 percent of state prekindergartners in Rockford, the second-largest city in Illinois, were in their second year.

“When we have them for two years, it makes a big, big difference,” says Pilsen Community Academy prekindergarten teacher Norma Martinez. Kindergartners with two years of prekindergarten, she reports, adjust to kindergarten and 1st grade more quickly and, in general, are farther ahead in their development. But, Martinez adds, relatively few children in her class, or in colleague Spurlark’s state Chapter 1 preschool, get that second year.

Research points to the benefits of a second year. The acclaimed High Scope/Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., ran for two years; reports on the project say that that was a key component of its success.

It’s not surprising that children with two years do better, says Erikson’s Bowman. “If you have more time to learn something, you learn it better.”

Getting primary grades ‘ready’

Early childhood experts say that getting schools ready for youngsters is as important as getting youngsters ready for school. If the gains children make in preschool are to be maintained, primary-grade teaching must change.

“Many teachers are going to have to change their instructional practices,” says Thomas. “Teachers can no longer say, ‘Well, I taught him, but he didn’t learn it.’ There has to be a whole new approach.” Her department has tried to push schools in that direction by promoting an improvement program called Opening Windows to Learning, but the board has never had staff or funds to provide teacher training on a wide scale.

Schools need to institute what’s called “developmentally appropriate” teaching, adds Bowman. In general, such teaching should:

Be age-appropriate. “That means you’re not asking a child to do something that’s outside what you’d expect a child that age to do—you wouldn’t sit a 3-year-old down with a book and expect him to read,” Bowman explains.

Be tailored to individual children, because “children grow at different rates.”

Be culturally appropriate—that is, take into consideration the backgrounds of children whose native language is not English, or children who don’t come from a “typical” middle-class background.

“People don’t want to change—they don’t want to do it,” says Sarah Barber, a state prekindergarten coordinator and trainer. “But you can’t use the same lesson plan you used 20 years ago.”

A principal from Englewood, she recalls, once asked her to recommend consultants to provide staff development for kindergarten and primary teachers. Knowing some of the teachers at the school, Barber says, “I recommended [someone] I knew would come in and put her foot down.”

“There’s been an explosion of knowledge about how children learn in the last 15 years,” Bowman says. “We need to bring teachers up to date on what we know about how children learn.”