Making preschool possible

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When the new School Reform Board of Trustees unveiled plans to balance the school system’s budget for the next four years, it cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that Chicago schools don’t need more money. Providing Chicago’s children with the kind of education they need—indeed, that the city itself needs—will require more money, school officials stressed. The articles in this issue on early childhood education show why.

To begin with, the board took a $3 million increase in money the state appropriated for prekindergarten programs for “at-risk” youngsters and used it to help balance the school system’s general operating budget. That’s legal under legislation passed last May that took the strings off much of Chicago’s school revenue; state pre-k money now comes to Chicago as part of a block grant. If the $3 million had been used as originally intended, it could have brought sorely needed preschool education to close to 1,000 3- and 4-year-olds, leaving “only” 11,000 unserved.

As our articles point out, money is not the only obstacle to opening more preschool classrooms. In many schools, there simply is no space. The School Board’s highly regarded Department of Early Childhood Education has reduced this problem somewhat by funneling state pre-k money to private day care centers so that they can afford to offer quality educational programming. Eventually, the School Board’s planned school construction program will help.

But there is still a need for central and regional offices to exercise leadership in getting schools to help solve their own space problems, either with year-round schedules, split shifts or busing to underused schools. If hundreds of parents are willing to put their children on buses to Beasley Magnet School, across the street from Robert Taylor Homes, then surely programs can be mounted that would attract children to less threatening neighborhoods.

In the meantime, parent-education programs, such as Parents as Teachers and HIPPY, offer a good alternative to schools that don’t have space for preschool classes. In these programs, family educators visit homes to help parents of infants and toddlers learn how to interact with their children in ways that promote healthy development and school readiness. But of course, they, too, cost money.

THIS ISSUE This issue on early childhood education was made possible by a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.

NEXT MONTH Accountability is the watchword of the new school administration. In November, CATALYST will explore that issue, giving status reports on Chicago’s plans as well as on programs already operating in Dallas, Tex., and the State of Kentucky.