South Loop Elementary Credit: photo by John Booz

This summer, Principal Patricia McCann was in a quandary over the state pre-kindergarten program at Mays Elementary.

In June, Chicago Public Schools sent principals a memo announcing that full-day state pre-kindergarten programs would be converted to half-day in the fall. The move would serve more children and save money, district officials said at the time. Back then, Mays operated two full-day classrooms that served 40 low-income children, and had a waiting list of another 30 parents clamoring to get in.

Now the Englewood school enrolls only 30 preschoolers—17 4-year-olds in the morning; 13 3-year-olds in the afternoon—in two half-day classes. McCann’s attempts to cobble together enough money to restore the full-day option fell flat, and looking ahead, she wonders whether preschoolers are being shortchanged.

“I want a full-day program,” McCann says. “I can’t understand how a child can get in a half day what we’ve been trying to do in a full day.”

Indeed, while experts agree that a half-day program is better than no program at all, studies show that a full-day program is more beneficial, especially for low-income children. Done correctly, full-day programs can offer more opportunities for field trips and projects to children who have had limited exposure to activities outside their homes.

Before CPS wiped out most of its full-day state pre-kindergarten classrooms, 982 children were enrolled in 55 classrooms.

This fall, only four schools will have full-day programs. Salazar on the Near North Side and Lozano and Talcott, both in West Town, figured out how to pay half the tab for preschool teachers’ and aides’ salaries out of their discretionary funds.

“Our parents are working class and this meets the needs of our parents,” says Talcott Principal Craig Benes, who easily signed up 20 children, the maximum for a full-day program.

Before this year, Talcott had two half-day programs, but enrollment steadily dropped because parents needed a full day, says Benes. This year, the school retained a half-day program for 3-year-olds and created a full-day for 4-year-olds. Children in the half-day program have been guaranteed a spot in the full-day for next year.

“The results have been that our half-day has built up because parents want their children in the full-day next year,” says Benes. “Plus, this is all beneficial for our kids. I looked at our kids in 3rd grade and they are too far behind.”

All told, the district is serving an additional 158 children in CPS classrooms by converting state pre-K to half day, but not saving money, says Barbara Bowman, who heads CPS’ early childhood education department.

Meanwhile, the district is paying for full-day programs at two sites and subsidizing 24 full-day tuition-based preschool classrooms. One classroom serves children whose mothers are clients of a city-run women’s substance abuse treatment center housed in a shuttered school facility. The other full-day program is at South Loop Elementary, which is being touted as the district’s premier site for “enhanced” early childhood programs.

It is here that, for the first time, CPS has blended a tuition-based program, where parents pay $185 a week, with Head Start and state pre-kindergarten, programs for children who are either low-income or at a higher risk for academic failure. The number of children in the school’s tuition-based program increased from 40 to 65; only 16 children are from the Head Start and the state pre-K program.

Still, one early childhood expert is dismayed with the board’s decision to cut back.

“The evidence doesn’t support it. A full-day program is more successful than a half-day,” says Samuel Meisels, who heads the Erikson Institute. “But I know [CPS] made a financial decision. I think it is a shame. And I know everyone at CPS probably agrees with me.”

Working parents can’t swing half-day

At Mays, the switch to half-day preschool was a change that many parents could not accommodate because it conflicted with their work schedules. Like families at Talcott, parents needed a full-day program.

“Sixty-five percent of my parents work,” says state pre-K teacher Tiffany Jones. “So they can’t send their children because they have no way to pick them up. I have one little boy who comes one or two days a week. His mom works a flex schedule.”

Working parents whose children are enrolled now have to pay for a half day of child care, a big expense in a community where the median household income is $18,955, which is below the city average.

When McCann learned last spring that the school’s 2006 budget would cover only one preschool teacher and an aide, she immediately tried to figure out how to keep the second preschool teacher and aide that were already on staff. But the two salaries would have taken a 35 percent bite out of the school’s $250,000 discretionary budget.

The urgency for keeping full-day state pre-K was a precipitous drop in 3rd-grade reading scores last year. “Three and three go together,” McCann notes. “If we don’t start teaching them when they are as young as three, they won’t be successful in 3rd grade.”

Without it, Mays is making do. Jones says she keeps an eye on the clock to fit in everything that needs to be covered: group reading, computer time, art class, Spanish, lessons on letter and number recognition. Instead of getting time every day to play outside, use the water and sand table and do exercises on the computer, children now alternate those activities throughout the week.

“Now, 15 minutes is critical,” says Jones. “A full day was so much more beneficial for our kids because at home, no one is reinforcing what they are learning.”

Indeed, on one morning in September, a group of 4-year-olds gathered on the floor begin reading in unison from a book they share, “I see a yellow duck looking at me. Yellow duck. Yellow duck. What do you see?”

“See, those children were in the full-day program last year,” McCann observes. “That is why they are so bright.”

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