Knocking down barriers to free preschool

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It took years, some would say decades, to get universal preschool off the ground in Illinois. So when Preschool for All got a green light three years ago, it was cause for celebration, especially among early childhood education advocates who had worked assiduously behind the scenes and on the frontlines to make it happen.

But then, a curious thing happened. In some places, shiny new preschool classrooms set up shop, and nobody came.

This has been a particularly perplexing issue in Chicago’s impoverished Englewood and West Englewood communities. A Salvation Army social service center on 69th Street and Sangamon opened two Preschool for All classrooms yet managed to fill only one of them.

Three blocks to the west, Chicago Urban Day School had a similar experience, filling only half of its 130 preschool seats. Finding ways to get the word out and persuade families to enroll their 3- and 4-year-olds has been a challenge, Director Georgia Jordan told Catalyst writer Debra Williams last fall. “We’ve put up signs, sent home notices and modified the program.”

Appearances aside, Englewood’s empty preschool seats have nothing to do with capacity. In fact, according to the most recent population data, the ratio of preschool slots to 3- and 4-year-old children is practically 1-to-1. Yet when parent organizers conducted a door-to-door survey there a couple years ago, they found a critical mass of families had not enrolled their young children in preschool because they believed that they could not afford it or that they were ineligible or that their child was not ready. Surveys conducted in the Austin and Logan Square communities yielded similar results.

Educators and advocates rallied to find ways to capture children across the state who were most in need of preschool but whose families are the most difficult to accommodate. In policy circles, this is the high-hanging fruit.

“There is no one definition for ‘hard-to-reach,’” says Judith Walker Kendrick, co-chair of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s committee on hard-to-serve children. She ticks off a few. It could be language barriers or disabilities or that a parent has depression or a drug addiction, she explains. It could be related to the availability of transportation or concerns about safety or work schedules or income levels that put full-day programs out of reach.

“It’s like an onion,” she says. “You peel it and you get all these layers.” 

One layer is Ikeda Jones, 23, who is profiled in this month’s Catalyst In Depth. She has four children under age six and, until recently, was homeless. Then there are the Rimals, recent immigrants from Bhutan who need assistance negotiating every aspect of their new life in America. And Cherese McGee, a single mother, works full-time and needs to supplement half-day preschool with full-day childcare for her 3-year-old.

All three face wildly different circumstances, but wind up with the same result—children who are not enrolled in preschool and who are missing out on the benefits of early education.

Here and there, though, are pockets of hope. One agency dispatches staff to visit parents at home and read to their young children. The idea is to get the pitch for preschool in early, and give parents some tools to stimulate youngsters’ development.

Another example: Illinois Action for Children exported to the south suburbs a West Side Chicago partnership program that links home-based childcare to preschool centers with certified teachers. The arrangement includes transportation for the children and inspires home providers to be more attentive to early learning.

Blue Island School District 130 has caught the attention of state policymakers with its intensive outreach and support to families who may otherwise fall through the cracks. Parent educators visit hospital maternity wards to chat up new mothers about early learning and the district’s preschool programs. Social workers make the rounds in public housing developments and trailer parks. Families whose children are enrolled continue to receive support that will ensure children consistently attend preschool and get the most out of it.

Such effort is far from the norm, says Kay Henderson, who heads up Illinois’ early childhood programs. “But that’s what it takes sometimes.”

That’s the mindset it’s going to take to make sure every child has an opportunity to attend preschool. In Washington, D.C., the Obama administration has signaled its commitment to early education by putting billions in funding on the table. Some of that money needs to support the extra effort required to serve the most needy. And some of the federal government’s effort needs to go into untangling financial eligibility requirements that trip up many parents.

Inspiration can come from across the globe. Consider that Helsinki, Finland, offers free or low-cost childcare around the clock, in consideration for working families.

Whatever it takes.