From opening “pop-up” preschools in Cicero to building new partnerships with existing service agencies, teams of parents, educators and health care providers are developing locally-based projects to improve access to early childhood education in the communities that most need it.

With the help of some Race to the Top Early Childhood federal grant money, the teams will begin testing their strategies this fall – and fine-tuning the projects as data comes in about enrollment. All of this, advocates say, will help the state analyze what works best in building local community systems around early childhood education.

“This can help us figure out which of the strategies we’d been thinking about might be the most useful in the end,” explains Theresa Hawley, director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which is overseeing the initiative.  “The best way for us to look at this problem is to zero in on the local level.”

Last month, the state approved the so-called “Innovation Zone” projects and will provide each team between $100,000 and $250,000, in addition to in-kind and technical services, next fiscal year so that they can put the plans into action. Funding for the Innovation Zones will continue through 2016. The Illinois Action for Children partnered with the state to convene the teams in Aurora, Cicero, Thornton Township, Greater East St. Louis, and Williamson County, as well as the Pilsen/Little Village and North Lawndale areas of Chicago.

The Innovation Zones funding model flips the script on the traditional government funding method, where organizations tailor their applications to fit parameters drafted by the state, says Leah Pouw, director of program innovations at Illinois Action for Children. Instead, the state guided the teams as thought about and researched their own communities, identified high-needs groups, and proposed projects to get more children into early childhood education.

“It’s a bottom-up approach, not top-down,” Pouw said. “Each community has unique characteristics. We’re trying to see it from their point of view.”

Children of immigrants, children with special needs

Early in the process, the teams honed in on outreach, screening and follow-up; transportation; program quality; and pipelines – or connecting families who are in contact with one organization to other services – as key issues. High-need groups included teen parents, homeless families, children with disabilities, children living in deep poverty, children in license-exempt child care, children of migrant workers and families that are unable to access services because they do not speak English.

In Cicero, for example, the team found that language and cultural barriers were keeping immigrant parents from enrolling their children in preschool programs. Many immigrants were unfamiliar with the concept of preschool simply because these state-funded programs don’t exist in their home countries. To target this specific group, the team will create “pop-up” structured play groups close to where families live that simulate the preschool experience.

“Maybe they need to try it out in a less threatening environment than dropping off your kids every day,” says Hawley.

The team will then analyze whether any of the parents who take their 2- or 3-year-olds to the “pop-up” preschools enroll those same children in traditional preschools later down the line.

Meanwhile, in both the North Lawndale and the Pilsen/Little Village communities, the teams are building a “pipeline” between families in deep poverty to early childhood education options. They’re doing this by identifying and partnering with a variety of partners that already provide some needed service to families – including neighborhood clinics and the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office – and can agree to share the same message about the importance of early childhood education.

 “When parents take their children in for their immunizations, when they’re in the health clinics, are we talking about how those children can gain access to the early care and education?” asks Cerathal Burnett, CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning and a core member of the planning teams in both Innovation Zones. “We want to make sure we’re all connected across the different service points, to make sure whoever touched the family was talking about the same thing.”

One area of focus in the North Lawndale community has been homeless families, who struggle to get the official required paperwork together in order to enroll their children in pre-school programs. Documents such as birth certificates and proof of income, for example, sometimes disappear when families are evicted from their homes and become transient or move into shelters.

“The documentation can be a barrier to them having everything ready for the applications,” Pouw says.

The team in Little Village and Pilsen, meanwhile, aims to increase the number of children with special needs, ages 3 to 5, in early childhood education programs.

“You want to get them screened as early as possible,” Burnett said. “The earlier you can catch and diagnose them, in many cases you can resolve the issues before going forward in their education.”

Teams in both Chicago communities plan to offer training to parents to be ambassadors in their own communities and talk with other parents about the benefits of early childhood education.

For Burnett, who has been working in the early childhood education field for 18 years, participating in the Innovation Zones has also really nailed down the understand the importance of collaboration—and making time for it.

Former Catalyst Chicago Associate Editor Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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