More late classes for preschoolers

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Nearly four years ago, parents on the Northwest Side were clamoring for more preschool, but coming up empty-handed.

Lack of classroom space was the main problem. At one school, according to the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, 250 to 300 families were on the waiting list for a preschool slot.  

So the federation and a former state senator came up with a plan: Create a “third shift” that would take advantage of existing space by tacking on another program at the end of the regular school day.

Chicago Public Schools agreed, and in 2005, opened 15 third-shift preschool classes in six schools: Barry, Belmont-Cragin, Falconer, Hanson Park, Lloyd and Schubert. The programs begin at 2:30 or 3 p.m. and end after 5 p.m.

Since then, third-shift preschool has become a fast-growing slice of the early childhood pie, especially in predominantly Latino schools and communities that are strapped for space and need new ways to serve children who otherwise are likely to go without services.

Last school year, the number of third-shift classes more than doubled since the program began, to 42 classes in 27 schools located in 21 neighborhoods, mostly on the Northwest and Southwest Sides. Seven more schools will launch third-shift classes this fall. (Each class can serve up to 20 students.) 

Even with the expansion, some schools with third-shift classes report that children are still going unserved. At Tarkington in Chicago Lawn, 200 families applied for just 60 slots in the school’s three late classes. Belmont-Cragin, which has four such classes—the largest program in the city—has approximately 101 families on the waiting list. Stock has one third-shift class and 100 children on a waiting list; Reilly has two classes and 40 children waiting for slots.

CPS says 3,652 children throughout the city are on waiting lists for preschool. That’s an improvement since 2004, when the waiting list was 5,898.

“There is a need for more programs and they have to be flexible,” says former state senator Miguel del Valle, now the city clerk of Chicago, who worked to bring the third-shift classes to CPS schools. “Children are better off in a formal, well-run program than just sitting in front of the TV.”

CPS tried a similar program in the early 1990s that was axed when teacher’s assistants filed a lawsuit claiming that they were not being paid overtime for working in an extended-day program.

“We didn’t have the money to do that, so the program was closed,” says Bonnie Roelle, who runs CPS’ Preschool for All and tuition-based programs.

Money, attitudes are barriers

Still, the expansion hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“The first problem was the principals, and the second was the budget,” says Gloria Pinto, the executive director of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, the community group that helped spearhead third-shift preschool. “Some principals didn’t want it, and we needed extra funding.”

Roelle, who says CPS was receptive because it had run the now-shuttered extended-day program, confirms that principals hesitated to jump on board.

At one meeting with Northwest Side principals, the idea got a chilly reception, says Pinto. “Two of them outright told us ‘No,’ and they didn’t show up for any more meetings.”

Pinto says some principals complained that adding an after-school shift would mean hiring more security and other staff so that they could keep their building open.  “It was more work for them. They didn’t want to do it,” she says.

“Principals feel like they already have enough to do,” Roelle adds. “Even now, we have a huge Latino population in the Midway Airport area that could benefit from these programs, and we can’t get our foot in the door over there.”

However, eventually some schools stepped up to the plate. One of the first to sign on was Belmont-Cragin.

“We were open to the idea, and we liked the idea of serving more children who would otherwise to go kindergarten without any [school] experience,” says Principal Maria Cabrera. “To fill our third shifts, we just go right down our waiting list.”

Belmont-Cragin tried to open a fifth classroom last year, but could not find a certified bilingual early childhood education teacher who was willing to work part-time in an afternoon shift. Other early childhood programs have similar problems attracting bilingual teachers with early childhood certification. (See Catalyst, December, 2007)

Belmont-Cragin has two full-time teachers who teach preschool during the regular school day, and one part-time teacher who teaches the third-shift class.

As for funding, three years ago, del Valle lobbied for, and won, additional state funding to cover those costs.

Now, funding is not a concern since Preschool for All began funneling additional money to the district starting in the 2006-07 school year. “We have the money now. We could open up 20 more classrooms, but there is still some reluctance on the part of principals,” says Roelle.

Word-of-mouth among parents, and a push from early childhood staff, have helped the third-shift program expand, says Roelle. 

This fall, a total of seven additional third-shift classes will open up at Dore, Gallistel, Waters, Falconer, Edison Park, Audubon and Stock schools.

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