Board closes 8 child-parent centers, converts some to Head Start

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This fall, CPS converts eight child-parent centers, viewed as the gold standard among early childhood programs, into state-funded pre-kindergartens or Head Starts.

CPS officials say the move will free up $4.7 million in federal Title 1 funds for the district’s reading improvement initiative. Critics charge the district is penny pinching a high-quality, nationally-recognized preschool program.

The School Board shut down a third of its 23 child-parent centers, citing declining enrollment. However, Barbara Bowman, chief officer of early childhood education, says she is unable to provide enrollment figures. The child-parent center model requires extra staff to work with parents and the community; those positions were eliminated, along with head teachers and some clerks. In total, 24 positions were cut, in addition to the clerks.

Previously, some child-parent centers provided staff to help students transition to elementary school, but those supports were cut three years ago.

The shuttered programs are: Wadsworth, Cockrell, Doolittle West, Stockton, Johnson, Olive, Dumas and Mason. Early childhood education advocates estimate that these centers served about 430 preschoolers, at a price tag of $11,000 per child.

Fifteen other child-parent centers programs will remain open. Bowman notes that as neighborhoods undergo demographic shifts and gentrification, declining enrollments would lead to rising costs. However, she says there are no plans for further closings.

Principal Robert Pales of Henson Elementary, which operated the Olive Child Parent Center, says services will not be cut and Henson faculty will assume the responsibilities previously handled by the four Olive staffers who were let go.

Yet some activists question whether youngsters will receive the same quality of instruction. Child-parent centers, which provide two years of preschool and one year of kindergarten, focus on early literacy skills and require parents to volunteer the equivalent of four hours a week.

Teacher quality is an issue as well. While child-parent centers and state pre-kindergartens require teachers to hold both a bachelor’s degree and a Type 04 early childhood education certificate, Head Start only requires two years of college.

Wanda Hopkins of Parents United for Responsible Education criticizes CPS for basing its decision to close the centers on budgetary concerns. “CPS is about the business of education, not about children,” she says.

Indeed, an often cited, long running study by the University of Wisconsin found that students who were enrolled in child-parent centers performed better on standardized tests and had higher graduation rates than children with similar backgrounds who were enrolled in other preschool programs.

Mary Gallery is a Catalyst intern. E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.