Parents participate in a science workshop at Pickard Elementary as part of Scaling Up Best Practice, a structured series of workshops at Pickard and other elementary schools in Pilsen and Little Village. Credit: Photo by John Booz

Two dozen parents packed a room at Edwards Center for Young Learners as Nadia Miranda, from CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement, made her recruiting pitch. As part of a new research study, their children would undergo extra testing. So would teachers, in the form of classroom observations. Parents would be asked to participate in workshops and share their views in phone surveys.  In return, the young students would get extra services, smaller classes, and a greater chance at success.

“It is a win-win,” Miranda said.

The research study Miranda was recruiting for is part of a federally funded expansion of Chicago’s Child Parent Centers program, an initiative that has dwindled dramatically since it was first launched but is still cited by experts and advocates as a prime example of the positive impact of high-quality early learning.

The latest expansion comes through the Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant program started under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

This time around, CPS has created six new sites, bringing the total to 17, and given existing child-parent centers new resources. Other school districts are also participating, including Evanston/Skokie District 65 and Normal School District 5, in Illinois; Milwaukee Public Schools; and three Minnesota districts, including St. Paul Public Schools.

In Chicago, child-parent centers have had a rocky road. The pioneering preschool through 3rd grade programs were launched with fanfare, then gradually cut back over the years due to school closings, declining enrollment and budget woes.

The goal of the new project is to replicate, on a broader scale, the positive results that the child-parent centers first produced when they were launched in the late 1960s. Research following the children who graduated from the centers showed that decades later, they had a greater chance of enrolling in colleges and getting skilled jobs, as well as fewer felony arrests and lower rates of depression, than CPS students who didn’t attend the programs.

Though the centers are making a comeback with the i3 initiative, long-term funding and resources are still in doubt: The grant is only for four years. During that time, supports will follow students as they progress from preschool into the early elementary grades, but won’t be offered to new incoming students.

“It will not be much service, but it should give us some information,” former CPS Chief Early Childhood Officer Barbara Bowman said at a June meeting of the Illinois Early Learning Council.

Still, there are hopes that CPS could find more resources to extend the program. Arthur Reynolds, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied child-parent centers for decades, says the different sites are trying to develop “sustainability and expansion plans” working with districts, state departments, and community agencies.

Parent participation key to success

Mayela Perez-Fajardo, the Edwards parent resource teacher, notes that the school’s parent agreement sets high expectations, asking parents to spend at least 3 hours a week participating in school events and doing educational activities at home.

The child-parent center program is “good for the community. It’s good for the school if they are going to receive more funds,” said Alma Lopez, the mother of a preschooler. “Hopefully it gives good results back, and we get more assistance.”

In preschool, class sizes will be capped at 17 children, and each class will get both a teacher and an aide. In 1st through 3rd-grade, class sizes will be no more than 25 students, and will also have a teacher and an aide.

The child-parent centers can also hire—if they don’t have them already—a head teacher, who serves as the instructional leader for preschool and kindergarten; a parent resource teacher, who offers activities for parents in the parent room; and a school-community liaison.

Barbara Relerford, the head teacher at Ferguson Child-Parent Center, says the school has used its funding to offer full-day preschool and to hire an additional teacher, an assistant and a school-community liaison.

“We are working on a resource book so parents can see what services are here in the community that we might not be aware of,” Relerford says. “One of my goals is to have [the liaison] make contacts with the neighborhood clinics and dental agencies and get those people to come in and talk to our parents.”

She says that attendance, “which in the early grades is always a struggle,” has improved with the full day program. “Maybe [parents] make an extra effort now,” she says. “It allows them to go out, go to school and get a job.”  A Catalyst Chicago analysis found that absenteeism is a serious problem in the early grades, especially preschool.

Push for alignment

Perhaps most importantly, the grant pays for training so that Relerford and other head teachers can learn how to align preschool and primary grades curricula.

At Ferguson, kindergarten teachers have attended professional development sessions with preschool teachers. At Peck Elementary, a summary of what teachers are working on goes to Erikson Institute consultants working on the study, including Bowman.

“The pre-K teachers are making sure they are matching all their topics to what the kindergarten is covering,” says head teacher Dawn Donahue. For instance, preschool teachers have begun using some parts of the Houghton-Mifflin language arts curriculum that kindergarten teachers use, and kindergarten teachers are using activities from the Blueprint for Early Literacy curriculum, used in preschool, to increase the consistency students get.

For the first time, preschool students at Peck are working on skills like “blending and segmenting phonemes,” or pulling apart and putting together the sounds in words. These skills previously weren’t taught until kindergarten.

To make the material appropriate for preschool, Donahue says, students might tap their shoulders while saying the different sounds c- and –at in the word “cat.”  “There’s a lot of movement with the little ones,” Donahue explains.

The summer 2011 issue of Catalyst In Depth, Transitioning to Kindergarten,” found that many students face a rocky path into kindergarten and receive an uneven start in school.

Donahue says that although the school only offers half-day preschool, it has also seen attendance increase by several percentage points to nearly 100 percent.

Peck has instituted parent workshops nearly every day, based on results of a survey on parents’ interests, such as learning about nutrition, how to get a GED and how to develop their children’s math and reading skills.

“Students are not only happy to see their parents be part of this program, but also we are helping the parents to work with them more effectively at home,” Donahue says.

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