Former teachers face hurdles in launching new preschool

Print More

Two former teachers who got their start through Teach for America have ambitious plans for a new preschool that would combine the best elements from several popular methods of teaching with an emphasis on serving parents as well as children.

The pair hope to open their preschool on the Southwest Side as soon as next summer.

Ultimately, Jesse Ilhardt and Kelly Powers want to run a network of early childhood centers that provide early care and learning for infants and children starting at 6 weeks of age up to 5 years. Though specifics are still up in the air, the centers could operate up to 11 hours a day—a boon to working parents—and would be staffed with certified teachers.

So far, finding money and space have been big hurdles for the new non-profit, VOCEL, which stands for Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders. Initially, Ilhardt and Powers planned to start with a center in Belmont-Cragin. They had held forums in the community, with help from the CPS Office of Family and Community Engagement. But those plans were scrapped once they learned that other South Side and West Side neighborhoods, with lower median incomes than Belmont-Cragin, were higher on the city’s priority list for early childhood programs.

The two recently considered a storefront space in Brighton Park, only to find that it had been snapped up by a local elementary school.

Though VOCEL was a finalist in the Project Impact competition sponsored by A Better Chicago, Ilhardt and Powers recently found out that their nonprofit did not win one of the $100,000 grants. Their only clear source of financing will be state child-care funds, which many preschools find are too paltry to sustain a quality program.

“It is just reinforcing how challenging it is for providers to enter the market without startup funding,” says Ilhardt, executive director of education for VOCEL.

She and Powers have a combined 11 years in early childhood education, making them relative newcomers as educators. Before hatching their preschool idea, Ilhardt and Powers worked at Teach for America, coaching new early childhood teachers across the city. They are two of several Teach for America alumni who have gone on to start nonprofits in Chicago.

Ilhardt says a key motivation for the venture is the lack of access many children in Chicago have to quality pre-K programs. They want to “provide that for families who are sitting on waiting lists,” she says.

Curriculum focus becomes clearer

The vision for VOCEL is to combine elements from well-known early childhood teaching methods such as Reggio Emilia, the Project Approach, and Montessori, to create a preschool that is “holistic” and “culturally relevant” with a focus on literacy and social-emotional development.

Last winter, Ilhardt and Powers held their first parent forum, in Belmont-Cragin. A big snowstorm hit, and the forum drew no attendees, the pair notes in a blog entry on the Teach for America website.

But by April, they had connected with more parents, developed the name VOCEL and decided on a curricular focus. For inspiration, they visited early childhood education programs at Chicago Commons, Mary Crane Center, Educare, the Children’s Home + Aid Society and Christopher House.

Powers, who serves as executive director of operations, says their center will also focus on educating and empowering parents to choose their children’s paths as they transition into kindergarten. She envisions a “multi-generational program” with a focus on family involvement.

“One thing we want to do is treat the child intake as a family intake, and being able to structure our program around that,” Ilhardt says. The specific focus of their programs for parents, which could include English as a Second Language or GED classes, will depend on parents’ needs.

Another strategy the center hopes to adopt is training parents to be additional teachers in the classroom, a plan inspired by a similar program at Park West Cooperative Nursery.

Another emphasis of the center will be on staff development, with weekly formal observations and debriefings with teachers and in-depth feedback twice a year.

In line with practices believed to be developmentally appropriate for the youngest students, much of the instruction will be play-based, with teachers using “purposefully planned play.” For instance, adults can ask open-ended questions about children’s play and purposefully introduce advanced vocabulary words in discussion of a child’s work.