Every Tuesday, Jaqueline Espinal rides a shuttle to Truman College from Logan Square to take classes in childhood development. Credit: Photo by Max Herman

Early childhood education piqued Jaqueline Espinal’s interest when her daughter started preschool at Darwin Elementary in Logan Square. She first pitched in as a volunteer, then became a parent mentor and eventually got a part-time job supervising recess at Darwin, where her daughter is in 6th grade.

But going back to school to earn a credential or degree seemed out of reach. Espinal gave birth to her daughter when she was in high school, and she didn’t think she could manage college with a young child.

Now 27, Espinal decided she was ready to try after learning about a program of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) that sends students in groups to take child development courses together.

The goal of the program is to advance and train early childhood educators who, like Espinal, speak both Spanish and English and want to work in the community where they live.

So now on Tuesdays, Espinal spends 60 to 90 minutes on a City Colleges of Chicago shuttle bus that takes her to and from Truman College in Uptown for classes. Meanwhile, her mother cares for Espinal’s daughter.

LSNA lobbied hard to get a professor to come to City Colleges’ Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center, which is closer. However, City Colleges is in the midst of consolidating classes in given areas at given campuses, and administrators nixed the idea.

Truman will house the system’s early childhood courses.

Banking that program quality will trump location

After this semester, Espinal will have 13 credit hours under her belt, with another 49 to go for an associate’s degree. She wishes classes were closer to home but hopes she can make it work and ultimately become a teacher’s assistant or teacher in a child care center.

“Since we’re going part-time, it does seem like a long time, but I just know I can’t stop,” she says. “I don’t want to go into the classroom empty-handed.”

City Colleges are banking that students like Espinal who want careers in preschools, child care centers or daycares, will not be deterred by the travel.

By next fall, City Colleges plans to stop offering child development courses at five locations: Olive-Harvey and Kennedy-King on the South Side, Malcolm X on the Near West Side, Daley on the Southwest Side and Harold Washington in the Loop. (Two entry-level courses will be offered at two colleges besides Truman because they are needed by students with other majors.)

The move is part of City Colleges’ reinvention plan aimed at turning each college into a specialized hub, with Truman focusing on education and human and natural sciences.

Jaqueline Espinal (left) walks into Truman College with her classmates Beatriz Morales (center) and Marivel Rivera.
Jaqueline Espinal (left) walks into Truman College with her classmates Beatriz Morales (center) and Marivel Rivera.

Linking colleges to careers

According to a recent article in the National Journal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped come up with the idea to link each campus to a growing local industry and to bring in employers to design new programs, with the hope of making the community college system relevant to students’ careers and Chicago’s economy.

In late 2011, the reinvention plan — which included hiring more college advisors and increasing dual-credit enrollment for CPS juniors and seniors — was launched by Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. Since then, City Colleges administrators have worked to “unify its campuses, which had operated largely as independent fiefdoms and often duplicated courses and programs,” the author of the National Journal article noted.

That included a big push to put nearly all City Colleges students on specific pathways to careers, so they know which courses they need to take and in what order, and which credits will transfer as they move on for more schooling.

But City Colleges faculty and educators who work with City Colleges say they fear the early childhood consolidation will trip up South and West Side residents who want to further their education — just as the city is trying to diversify its early childhood educator pipeline with more bilingual teachers and teachers of color who are familiar with their community’s needs.

About 2,200 students took child development coursework at City Colleges from the 2011-12 school year to 2013-14, mostly at sections offered at Harold Washington, Olive-Harvey and Daley.

While some students work toward associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, others already in the field are taking child development classes to earn credentials so they can keep their jobs and earn a higher-quality rating for their employer.

“We’re all concerned,” says Toni Potenza, associate dean at Roosevelt University’s College of Education, who’s been working through a federal grant on a City Colleges credit-transfer agreement. “Early childhood programs generally serve people who are living and working in the community around that community college. To say to someone who spent all day working in a child care center to travel up to Truman is an undue hardship.”

Jennifer Asimow, an associate professor in Harold Washington’s child development program, says it’s the equivalent of creating “educational deserts.”

“Our big argument about all of this has been about access,” she says. “When you take people out of their community to go to school, they end up not serving in their community… For a lot of people who thought ‘Maybe I’ll become a teacher,’ they’ll think of something else.”

A ‘concentrated investment’

Child development faculty at City Colleges found out about the changes by phone at the end of July. A petition to stop the consolidation circulated, and faculty sent letters asking the administration to reconsider.

But the City Colleges chancellor told faculty in late September that the decision to bring the programs together “will not be reversed” and asked them to “focus on a way forward.”

“We know that students do travel to our colleges when they know doing so will give them access to a high-quality program that holds economic value to them,” she wrote in a letter. “Each of our colleges draws students from literally every corner of the city, and Truman College is no exception…”

As a precedent, she cited Truman’s cosmetology program: “Nearly three quarters of that program’s students come from the south and west sides,” she wrote.

During a speech to the City Club on Tuesday, Hyman said the “excuse” that students won’t travel to attend college outside their neighborhood “troubles me on several levels, because it reflects condescending and insulting assumptions about our students.” It suggests, she said, that students aren’t committed enough to go after what they want and are incapable of going outside their comfort zones.

She held up her own example as proof: she graduated from Olive-Harvey before traveling long distances from home or work to get higher degrees at three institutions across the Chicago area.

“A related excuse I hear too often is that consolidating programs in one location will disenfranchise the poor,” she said. “Well, my response: Lower-quality education, however close to your home, won’t break the cycle of poverty. The only way we will break the cycle of poverty is to choose quality over proximity.”

It’s up to students to “make it work,” and do their part to take advantage of opportunities, she said, adding: “The world is not coming to any of our doorsteps to give us anything.”

But Jennifer Alexander, a child development instructor at Daley, reports that when she asked students who expressed concerns about transferring whether they’d be willing to try at least one class at Truman, especially if they already knew the professor, none said they would.

“Many of them like to stay close to their familiar community,” she says. “Some are intimidated by going to Uptown… I’m so worried that we’re going to lose all of them.”

Some research backs up her concerns. In 2014, a team of California researchers released the results of part of a five-year longitudinal study that interviewed 73 early childhood educators, most of whom were educators of color over the age of 40, who were going back to school for their bachelor’s degrees in early education. Nearly all ranked convenient class locations, as well as flexible times and financial aid, as critically important to their success.

In her letter to faculty, Hyman said the lack of a single, citywide program made it harder to form partnerships with employers and four-year schools.

By making a “concentrated investment” at one facility instead of splitting capital dollars among multiple sites, City Colleges hopes to improve its child development program. Administrators intend to revamp facilities at Truman to accommodate additional child development students.

Concern about South and Southwest sides

Katheryn Hayes, a City Colleges spokesperson, told Catalyst in an emailed statement that City Colleges expects child development enrollment “to be on par with current program enrollment in the first year as students are attracted to Truman College education programs.” A quarter of Truman students already come from the South and West Sides, she noted.

But an internal City Colleges document shared with Catalyst shows administrators had previously identified as a “key challenge” the fact that the “largest concentrations of Child Development students are on the South and Southwest sides” where St. Augustine College, a “major local competitor” that enrolls large numbers of bilingual and Hispanic students, has locations.

Asked about the document, Hayes said it “was a draft and does not accurately reflect City Colleges research.”

The document also expressed concern that residents on the South and Southwest sides will attend a City College closer to home — one without an early childhood program — and, in the process, fuel a “shortage of qualified child care providers” in those communities.

To address that challenge, it’s been proposed that City Colleges offer child development courses online, as well as allow students to complete field work at sites across the city.

But Alexander at Daley College points out that programs combining online and in-class work have yet to be developed, and not all faculty are credentialed to teach online. She says to develop curriculum that would meet statewide and national credentialing standards would take significantly more than a year’s time.

Transferring credits

Educators say they worry the consolidation effort could undo some work done over the last two years to improve transfer agreements and advising systems between City Colleges and four-year universities. The work was funded by a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant. Illinois set aside just over $1 million for the statewide effort.

Faculty at several City Colleges — Harold Washington, Daley, Malcolm X, Truman and the district office — have been working with five Chicago universities.

For example, Alexander at Daley College worked on a cross-advising system so that students looking to transfer to nearby St. Xavier University would have a knowledgeable point of contact at the university who made them feel welcome. The two schools — along with another community college in the suburbs — also worked on grouping students together for several weeks as they prepare to take a skills test that must be passed before students can enter a teaching program.

Asimow at Harold Washington worked on finding ways to transfer a full associate’s degree heavy on child development coursework into a bachelor’s program at Roosevelt, something that wasn’t possible in the past.

But the grants — given to four-year universities that pledged to work with nearby community colleges — were awarded before City Colleges announced the consolidation of its child development program. Faculty who worked out transfer agreements between their university and an individual City College now have to go back and create an “uber agreement,” as Marie Donovan, an associate professor of education at DePaul University, put it.

Christi Chadwick, who helped oversee the grant effort for the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, says that while the grant partnerships “may not completely continue as they were originally envisioned,” she believes they will still have long-term impacts.

Anne Brennan, who oversees City Colleges’ transfer office, wrote in an emailed statement that the transfer agreements between City Colleges and four-year universities “will apply to the whole system” to allow City Colleges “to have the flexibility of relocating or starting new programs, while not disrupting articulation agreements.”

Brennan added that the grant-funded training and supports given to teachers “will carry over and continue to support our students” in the child development program when it moves to Truman.

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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