Network connects neighborhood preschools

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The Edgewater and Rogers Park communities have roughly seven state pre-kindergartens, seven private preschools, eight Head Start centers, 64 licensed home day cares and a multitude of social service agencies serving 2,300 children ages zero to 5.

Four years ago, the leaders of many of those services began talking with each other for the first time as part of a program that was the brainchild of state Sen. Carol Ronen (D-Chicago).

Called the Early Childhood Network of Edgewater and Rogers Park, the program provides a meeting ground, training and information about common concerns such as legislation and insurance. It also has produced a directory of community resources that is used by a wide variety of individuals in the community, and it has distributed grants that have helped improve and expand services.

“It’s been a fabulous experience,” says Ronen. “The real great benefit is that it’s brought together people from all around the table. By working together, they’ve been able to share resources and experiences and thus improve the quality of care and services for the children.”

The network grew out of Ronen’s concern about the stagnant supply of day care slots in the community. Besides the 2,300 children in group care, Edgewater and Rogers Park have 6,000 preschool-age children who are cared for by relatives or by so-called license-exempt providers, who serve three or fewer children, according to the 2000 U.S Census.

A study of the network by Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning suggests that it has paid dividends in both program quality and expansion. For example, providers who participated added 75 percent more day care slots than did those who did not participate, reports Christine George, the lead researcher. George stresses, however, that correlation does not mean cause. Those who participated may simply have been the go-getters, she notes.

Even so, George says the program could and should be replicated.

Kate Sachnoff, the network’s executive director, agrees. “This is really a low-cost, community-building, quality-enhancing project, and it can set up a community for future success,” she says.

The network has been funded by state and philanthropic grants. In cooperation with state Rep. Harry Osterman (D-14th), Ronen secured two cycles of grants totaling $170,000 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, recently renamed the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. And the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation made an award of $150,000 over three years. However, those grants are running out.

The Chicago Public Schools and City Hall are looking into possibly replicating the networks in other areas of the city.