A program that started out serving hard-to-reach preschoolers in the Austin neighborhood has since spread to suburbs south and west of the city.

The program brings at-risk children in home-based day care to nearby child care centers for part of the day, to give them the benefit of an early-education curriculum taught by certified teachers. The goal is to serve youngsters who are in need of preschool but are being cared for by relatives, friends or in other home settings.

Since its launch five years ago, the Community Connections Model has grown from four centers serving 160 children to 10 centers serving 380 children in the south suburbs. Last year, the program debuted in west suburban Franklin Park, where one center serves 40 children. Plans are in the works to open a program in Bellwood, also west of the city.

When Illinois Action for Children first piloted the model in Austin, parents and home care providers deemed the effort a success, saying children’s reading and social skills improved. (See Catalyst, December 2006.)  When the organization decided to expand, it chose the south suburbs: Many families in the area relied on home-based day care, leaving a high percentage of at-risk children not enrolled in preschool, says Tom Layman, vice president of program development at Illinois Action for Children.  Children in both licensed and license-exempt home day care are eligible.

While recruiting child care centers and home care providers to participate, Action for Children encountered two barriers.

The centers had trouble finding and hiring certified preschool teachers—a requirement of Preschool for All—because the salaries were too low, Layman says. Benefits were either limited or non-existent. So Action for Children stepped in, offering to recruit and hire teachers for them.

“We have a good fringe benefit program and our [teacher] salary is competitive with school districts,” Layman explains.

Action for Children receives $300,000 per year from the state’s Preschool for All funds to run Community Connections, at a cost of $3,000 per child, per year. (In the first year, Action for Children received $700,000 over two years from The Joyce Foundation for initial planning and implementation.)

The organization also had to persuade home-care providers that they would continue to receive child care subsidies; the providers initially feared that the child care centers would get the subsidy instead. Action for Children hosted lunches and other outreach activities to promote the program and allay their fears.

“I had to really sell myself and the program,” says Charlotte Luckett, the owner of the HGDC Child Care Center in Chicago Heights.

Now, Luckett says, her center has relationships with six home care providers who send 27 children for preschool classes.

Carla Rucker Freeman sends seven children to Luckett’s center, including her four grandchildren. For her, the program has been a success.

Before they began going to the center, her grandchildren were behind academically, Rucker Freeman says. Her daughter, the children’s mother, had personal difficulties and “kept them secluded and out of preschool,” says Rucker Freeman.

Now, she says, her grandchildren are more outgoing and social, and eager to play with other children. The other children she cares for have made similar progress, she says.

Rucker Freeman has blossomed too, learning how to inject early learning opportunities into the day when the children are with her. At least twice a month, a teacher from the center visits her at home to read to the children and work on a specific activity. Rucker Freeman has learned to help the children use their imagination by making pictures with buttons, and peppers them with questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Now when she gives them time to draw, she knows to ask them to try specific things to stir their imaginations.

“I might ask them to draw a picture of faces that show me specific emotions—like happy or sad,” she says. “I wasn’t doing this before.”


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