State seeks $70 million for early learning

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Illinois’ application for the Race to the Top early learning grant lays out an ambitious road map for improving early education, including stiffer requirements for home child care, new learning standards and a target to have three-quarters or more of high-needs children enrolled in preschool by 2015.

Specifics of the Early Learning Challenge grant application were detailed at an Illinois Early Learning Council meeting this week, prior to the grant’s Oct. 19 deadline. The state could receive a 4-year grant of up to $70 million.

Although one of Illinois’ goals is to ensure that the most at-risk children are first in line for high-quality early learning programs, the grant doesn’t require that states increase the number of slots available. And reaching the target will require solving a conundrum: Families that face the most challenges are the hardest to reach.

 “The kids we are most concerned about need a lot more,” said Theresa Hawley, an early childhood program consultant who worked on the application and spoke at the Early Learning Council meeting. “Even in those communities where you’ve got plenty of spots, you’re not necessarily getting the most at-risk kids into the program.”

By 2015, the state aims to have at least half of high-needs children enrolled in at least two years of preschool, and at least three-quarters of high-needs children enrolled for at least one year.  Up to half the state’s children are high-needs under the grant’s criteria, which includes children from families earning up to twice the federal poverty limit, children with disabilities, homeless and foster children, and English language learners.

But it’s unclear how many of these children are currently in such programs. Existing Preschool for All and Head Start programs are believed to have enough slots to meet the target, however.

To count toward the enrollment goal, a preschool or child care center must have a four- or five-star rating on a new quality rating system that is also part of the grant application. Preschool for All and Head Start programs will automatically receive a four-star rating, barring problems.

The new system will replace the current Quality Counts program with a “tiered quality rating and improvement system” for preschools. Programs with four-star rating will get access to coaches to work with teachers on instruction and help them beef up classrooms using the quality standards of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) tool.

Focus on child care

Child care programs across the state will be automatically enrolled in the rating system after July 1, 2012 when they apply for new licenses and license renewals. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced that he will require city-funded programs to enroll as soon as the new system is up and running.

Programs will start out with one-star ratings, unless they meet additional requirements. The state plans a validation study to determine whether children in highly-rated programs achieve more than those in lower-rated ones.

In addition to the quality rating system, tougher licensing requirements for small home child care businesses are also planned and would take effect in 2014.

Currently, licensing is only required for programs serving four or more children. The new requirement would be imposed on programs serving two or three children who are not related and are not being cared for by a relative or in their own home.

That provision proved a lightning rod for controversy at the meeting, although officials note that it is a requirement for the grant. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services estimates that the change would impact less than 1 percent of the children currently in the state’s child care assistance program.

But some council members noted that programs serving children who are not part of the state program would also be affected, and that the new rules could drive providers “underground.”

“I would be very concerned about what this rule change would mean for access to child care for the lowest-income families,” said council member Brynn Seibert of the Service Employees International Union. Seibert noted that low-income parents, who often have irregular working hours and multiple jobs, often rely on license-exempt home care.

But Phyllis Glink, director of the Irving Harris Foundation, said that was not necessarily a reason to weaken requirements. The state should “take a stand on where we think children should be placed, to get the care they deserve,” she said.

Sessy Nyman, vice president for policy and strategic partnerships at Illinois Action for Children, also had qualms but said the move is in the right direction.

“We have to stop our current behavior in terms of funneling all our resources to center-based care,” she said. “Illinois has a disproportionate number of kids in license-exempt settings.”

Early learning, kindergarten readiness

To qualify for the grant, the state has rewritten its preschool learning standards, to align them with recent research on child development, make them more useful to teachers and feed into the Common Core State Standards for kindergarten. The new standards include more detailed descriptions of what children’s learning looks like in practice.

Officials also added new early learning guidelines for children birth to age 3. These, along with a new set of educational guidelines for birth-to-5 programs, will form the basis for program evaluations under the new quality rating system.

In addition, Illinois plans to implement a new school readiness assessment, the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, or KIDS, in which teachers will observe kindergarten students to assess whether they are ready for kindergarten. The observation tool, which will be designed starting this spring, is slated to roll out in pilot districts in fall 2012, go statewide in fall 2013, and become a requirement by fall 2014.

By the end of 2015, the state’s goal is to have at least 55 percent of students demonstrate “full readiness” for kindergarten on the assessment.

But it’s not clear how far the state has to go to reach that goal, since Illinois, like many other states, does not have baseline data on kindergarten readiness.

Other strategies

Other strategies outlined in the state’s grant application would:

*Increase state reimbursement rates for child care, “to better reflect the true costs of providing high quality.”

*Create a credential for home visitors, family outreach workers, and coaches who work with early childhood teachers.

*Require that all child care programs train their staff on Illinois’ early earning standards.

*Expand programs like Community Connections, which allows home child care businesses to send children to preschool for a portion of the day.

*Require all early childhood educators and child care providers to register in the Gateways to Opportunity Registry, which publicizes training opportunities and tracks professional achievements. Additional career counselors will be hired for the registry to work with child care centers that serve the highest-need children.

*Require a director’s credential – the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education – for all directors of child care centers that also offer Preschool for All. The credential requirement kicks in by July 2017.

*Train college professors who instruct teacher candidates on priority topics like teaching math (which was identified as a problem area in the last assessment of Preschool for All), using assessments, and serving special-needs students and English learners.

Some of the grant funds might be set aside for scholarships for early childhood teachers who are pursuing bilingual or English as a Second Language endorsements, which will be in greater demand as new rules take effect requiring bilingual classes for preschool English language learners.