Study highlights benefits of full-day preschool in Chicago

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Research has long shown how preschool attendance can have lifelong academic and other benefits for children, especially those from low-income families. But a new study on Chicago’s child-parent centers found that children attending a full day of preschool do even better on a range of kindergarten readiness assessments than those who attend preschool for just part of the day.

Children who attend for a full day also have better attendance, are less likely to be chronically absent and demonstrate more gains in social-emotional development and physical health.

The research — from the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs — comes just weeks after the city agreed to temporarily expand the number of half-day slots available in child-parent centers using a unique loan that ties repayment to a reduction in children needing costly special education services.

The study’s lead author, Arthur Reynolds, who has researched Chicago’s child-parent centers for decades, said he was surprised by the consistency and size of the impact of extending the hours. Previous research, he said, had already established that children in full-day classes make more progress on literacy and math skills than children in half-day classes.

“But we found even larger differences in social-emotional learning — in terms of peer relationships, following directions, managing emotions and experiences – and also physical health, which has never been looked at,” Reynolds said.

Scores for literacy and cognitive development were not significantly different between children from the two groups, the study found. But, overall, children who participated in a full-day program scored 22 points higher on their “total school readiness score,” as measured by the observational tool Teaching Strategies Gold.

Reynolds said the benefits found by extending preschool hours in child-parent centers could likely be replicated at other kinds of high-quality preschools. Historically, most publicly funded CPS preschool classrooms have been half-day, meaning children attend class for less than three hours per day. CPS officials said that currently some 563 of the district’s 663 preschool classrooms are half-day.

The study, conducted in the 2012-2013 school year, focused on about 1,000 low-income children who attended one of the 11 child-parent centers in Chicago that offered both full-day and part-day classes that year. (The number has since grown, with 13 of the city’s 16 child-parent centers now offering full-day classes.)

Child-parent centers are unique because of their wraparound services and requirements of parental involvement. They were started in Chicago in the 1960s but have been significantly improved and expanded across the Midwest since 2011, through a $15 million federal Investing in Innovations (i3) grant that’s being managed by Reynolds and a team from the University of Minnesota.

Longer days lead to better attendance

The new study – which is being published in tomorrow’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association — found that children in full-day classes were also more likely to show up to school. The average daily attendance rate among children in the full-day cohort was 85.9 percent, versus 80.4 percent among those in the half-day programs. Chronic absenteeism, meanwhile, was cut by nearly half.

Reynolds said parents are more committed to sending their children each day to a full-day, high-quality preschool program. He also recognized the transportation and logistical barriers that make it challenging for parents to send their children to half-day preschool programs. A recent report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that children are most likely to miss preschool when they’re sick, although logistical obstacles for families account for nearly one-fifth of all absences.

Parents say many of those obstacles “arise because of difficulty with half-day preschool schedules,” according to the Consortium study. “Half-day programs require that parents find child care for the remainder of the day and arrange drop-off/pick-up in the middle of the day.”

In recent months, a new coalition of unions and community groups has issued a call to city officials to extend the hours of early childhood education programs and child care so that parents can work full-time.

In fact, Reynolds says the main reason that many of Chicago’s child-parent centers even offer full-day preschool classes is because of the insistence of parents who otherwise refused to enroll their children. Because the federal grant money only covers a half-day of class, “principals agreed to use their own dollars to match the i3 grant,” he said.