A year ago, Chicago Public Schools could not enroll enough children in Englewood to fill the seats in its state-funded universal preschool program. Today, nearly every slot is taken.

“We have 320 slots, 300 of them are filled,” says Ava Haji, who oversees CPS’ Preschool for All programs on the south side. Several more children are in the pipeline, awaiting results of medical exams.

Haji and her staff blanketed the neighborhood with door hangers, distributed flyers at schools and gave away schoolbags, T-shirts and books at summertime events like the Bud Billiken Parade, African Festival of the Arts at Washington Park, Taste of Chicago and the Englewood Back to School Parade.

“It was hard lugging all that stuff around, but it was great,” Haji says.

Lutheran Social Services Englewood Messiah Head Start on 64th Street also got a recent bump in enrollment. The center’s capacity is 60 children and, on average, enrollment is about half that and fluctuates, says director Delphine Whittlesey. Today, 51 seats are filled.

Whittlesey also hit the pavement, going door-to-door to promote her preschool program and spread the word about the importance of early learning experiences. 

Haji and Whittlesey say their student recruitment activities were inspired by what they learned at a forum in April about the challenges of filling preschool seats in Englewood. Among the reasons some families in Englewood were not using preschool programs: They didn’t know about the programs; or they didn’t know that early childhood education prepares children for kindergarten.
The forum was convened by Catalyst Chicago, Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), Family Focus Englewood, Illinois Action for Children, Power-Pac (Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew Policy Action Council) and the Salvation Army.

The event was inspired by a story published in Catalyst last year that revealed disparate demand for the state-funded Preschool for All program. In Latino communities, preschool seats were filled and families were clamoring for more; but in some African American areas like Englewood, slots were widely available and going unfilled. (see story)

‘A lot of parents don’t understand’

Organizers from Power-Pac and COFI visited homes in Englewood to find out why families with young children were not taking advantage of free preschool programs. Besides being unaware that programs existed or that they were important, the organizers found the availability of transportation was an issue, as was a fear of losing child care subsidies.

“A lot of parents don’t understand that preschool is important,” says Everloyce McCullough, a community resident who attended the forum.

Former Bass LSC member Artra Mosley agrees. “The result is that children walk into school for the first time at age 6,” she says.

Those who attended the forum included parents, preschool program directors, early childhood advocacy and policy organizations, political staffers and administrators from the city’s Department of Children and Youth Services and Chicago Public Schools.

Members of the Illinois Early Learning Council, created to oversee and develop the state’s early learning programs, noted some ideas from the forum and plan to send them on as recommendations to the governor. These include:

  • Doing more community and parent outreach.
  • Creating a preschool resource directory. (see Catalyst’s map of preschools in Englewood)
  • Partnering with radio stations to advertise preschool programs to teen mothers.
  • Securing funding for vans to transport children and families to and from programs.

“We took those priorities and said, ‘Let’s address these on a policy level,’ ” says Rebecca Bunn of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. 

The forum has also been instrumental in creating collaborations.  In August, the city and Chicago Public Schools joined forces and shared a tent at a back to school fair in Englewood to publicize both Preschool for All and Head Start programs. Also, members of the state’s Early Learning Council members invited Power Pac to attend its quarterly meetings and will appoint one of the group’s parent organizers to the council. 

Yet, more work is left to be done. Georgia Jordan, director of Chicago Urban Day School, says preschool enrollment is still low. With 130 slots available, only half are filled. “We’ve put up signs, sent home notices and modified the program to include school age after school programs,” Jordan explains. 

Indeed, while headway has been made, conveners of the forum know that there are children in the community who could benefit from an early learning experience that have not been reached.

 “The forum has had two levels of impact, locally and citywide,” says COFI organizer Kellie Magnuson. “We are continued to meet to tackle this issue.  Many people are still very involved.”

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