Preschool enrollment down after changes to application process

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Earlier this year, CPS launched a centralized enrollment process for its preschools, setting an earlier deadline to apply for a slot and designating sites around the city where parents had to submit their application.

At the time, some teachers and principals feared that families might be put off by the new process, which also now requires proof of income and government benefits (a common requirement for early childhood programs). And though CPS made some adjustments and extended the deadline, enrollment in CPS preschools dropped this year, CPS spokesperson Keiana Barrett concedes. 

There are a total of 23,671 students in preschool this year, compared to 24,507 last year — a decline of 3 percent. Of the students in preschool this year, 17,000 registered this year for the first time, but CPS has not yet provided data on how that compares to last year.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story inaccurately calculated the decline in the number of preschool students this year. The story inaccurately compared the 17,000 children who registered for preschool this year to the total enrollment of approximately 24,000 last year.)

Preschool teachers say part of the problem is the loss of hands-on involvement from them. 

“We lost control,” says Laura Avalos, a preschool teacher at Addams Elementary in the Lake Calumet neighborhood on the Southeast Side. “They changed the process and took it out of our hands.” 

In her 15 years as a teacher and community resident, Avalos routinely approached parents and encourage them to bring their children to school, where they could fill out a preschool application. Based on the date they applied, with at-risk children getting priority, parents would get a call-back informing them of whether they had gotten a slot.

“We had a real handle on it and typically knew what our roster was by the end of June,” says Avalos.

The school typically kept a waiting list, and any families who were unable to get a spot would be the first to be contacted the following year. 

The new centralized approach scrapped this informal enrollment process. Instead of applying at their neighborhood schools, parents now must bring their application to one of just 24 designated sites and list their top school choices. Once turned in, the site administrator approves the family, issues them an ID number, and assigns them to a preschool that has space. The preschool then contacted parents to begin the enrollment process, which includes collecting paperwork like medical forms and immunization records.

“Parents would go to the school and ask for an enrollment application, but they’d tell you to go somewhere else or to call somebody,” says Felipa Mena, a co-chair of POWER-PAC, a coalition of parents from low-income, immigrant, and working-class families. Mena pointed out that transportation became a problem for parents who lived further away from one of the application sites.

The original May 3 deadline was extended, allowing families to register as late as September.

But late signups added confusion to the new process, particularly when preschool teachers were unable to answer questions about changes to the process.

“It was lot of ‘Just look online.’ But a lot of parents don’t have access to the Internet, particular in these low-income areas,” says teacher Joyce Rogers of Cook Elementary in Auburn Gresham.

Still, CPS points out that despite setbacks, 80 percent of parents were able to have their children attend their first choice of preschool.

“Like with any new system or process, there were some parents and stakeholders who required additional support to successfully navigate the system,” spokesperson Barrett wrote in an e-mail.  “As issues arose, we addressed them individually and made adjustments including extending time-lines and keeping central sites open all summer.”

Transfers, tuition co-pays

At Cook Elementary this fall, only 36 children are currently enrolled in the preschool, split between the morning and afternoon sessions. A full roster would be 40 children.

“I’ve never gone into the school year without a full roster. We’ve never had to worry about still bringing in students at this point in the year,” says Rogers, in her sixth year at Cook. “It feels like we were kind of strangle-held by the process.” By the ninth week of school, 7 children had transferred in or out; the preschool typically has three or four transferring students in an entire year.

Rogers is still getting calls from parents who want to enroll their child, but she can only direct them to one of the registration sites; the nearest is five miles away. Rogers said she’s concerned that the distance may discourage some parents from following through with enrollment.

Similar concerns were raised in other communities. One preschool teacher in the Garfield-Humboldt Park area also says high mobility became a concern with the earlier deadline. Though parents would register their child in the spring, they sometimes didn’t “know where they’ll be a few months from now,” says the teacher, who asked that her name not be used.

When school began, teachers were unable to reach some families either by phone or at their previous homes, the teacher adds.

Part of the new application includes income verification, which is used to determine if a family has to pay tuition. For students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, families have a co-pay based on a sliding scale.

Rosie Lopez, a preschool teacher at McCormick Elementary in Little Village, says she received no information about how much each family must pay. She is worried that families will stop bringing their children if the co-pay is too high.

Barrett says families were supposed to be notified of their co-pay amount at the time of registration, and that tools were provided, in the Ready to Learn! booklet and online, to help families calculate their payment ahead of time.

CPS has no current plans to change the process or add additional application sites, but could make changes based on feedback from stakeholders.