Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office is preparing, once again, to overhaul the way preschool services are delivered across the city, with the goal of enrolling more low-income youngsters, a top mayoral priority.

And this time, advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic about plans to bring school-based and community-based programs under a single enrollment system, to streamline the application process, and to eliminate a significant layer of bureaucracy for community-based providers.

In making the changes, city officials seem to acknowledge some of the failings of a 2013 Emanuel initiative to centralize the enrollment process for school-based programs. The goal was to give priority access to children from low-income families and to give slots to the neighborhoods that most needed them, as well as to prevent school administrators from cherry-picking pupils.

But parts of that overhaul were widely criticized. Parents found the new system inconvenient, as they could no longer register their children at a school but instead had to travel to a regional location.

As a result, enrollment fell. There are about 1,000 fewer 4-year-olds — the target group under the Emanuel administration — attending school-based programs today than when the mayor took office. City officials have said demographic trends are the cause for the decline.

“It’s evident that [the previous] centralization of enrollment presented barriers and challenges for families to access high-quality preschool,” says Cristina Pacione-Zayas, who until recently was the education policy director for the Latino Policy Forum and now works for the Erikson Institute. “I’m pleased the city is rethinking how to do that, with having families and children at the center of their decision-making.”

One-stop-shop for school, community-based programs

Under the city’s new plans, low-income children will still be given priority access to seats. And paper applications will be replaced with online enrollment, eliminating the need for families to travel long distances to get to an enrollment site.

In addition, the city will create a single application system for both school-based and community-based programs that receive federal, state or local dollars. This means that families will no longer have to call multiple community organizations or schools to find out whether there are openings; instead they will be able to see in real time online where there is availability.

Maricela Garcia, CEO of the Gads Hill Center, a community-based organization in Pilsen that provides preschool and other programs, hopes the new system will help families pick the preschool option that makes the most sense for their needs.

She notes, for example, that community-based centers operate year-round while school-based centers take breaks for vacations. Parents should know that and be able to act on that knowledge, she believes.

“Community-based organizations will continue to be the best options for families that need long-hour-days due to work or school schedules, as well as year-round services,” she said. “CPS breaks for vacations and is not open past 6 p.m. [which  community-based programs are].”

Recruiting families with limited Internet access

While the digital enrollment platform will be more convenient for most families, city officials acknowledge it likely will be a roadblock for those with limited Internet access or familiarity.

Michael Negron, the mayor’s policy chief, says the city will work with community organizations and other outside groups to provide extra handholding to targeted families. In some geographic areas, “we’ll have more of an on-the-ground effort,” he says.

In addition, city officials are analyzing ways to simplify the income verification process so that families can present proof of income or employment only once even if their children’s preschool relies on a patchwork of government funding sources with varying eligibility requirements.

Negron said the city is in preliminary conversations with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Head Start program, about how to simplify the income verification process for families that live in poor neighborhoods.

The new enrollment system, which officials say won’t be fully implemented until the fall of 2017, likely will be managed by the city, not CPS, Negron says.

This is a critical point because some providers see the school district as a direct competitor for preschoolers, especially as CPS has increased its offerings of full-day preschool, sometimes in close proximity to existing community providers.

“We’re really looking for the city to drive this, not the district,” Negron said in a recent interview. “The intention is for everyone to feel that we’re being an impartial arbitrator.”

Shifting oversight authority away from CPS

Another change that’s already underway: streamlining the process for community organizations that rely on funding from both CPS and the city’s Department of Family & Support Services (DFSS).

Negron says the city plans to shift oversight — from CPS to DFSS — for preschool slots and other early learning programs, including birth-to-3 and home visiting, that are carried out by community organizations.

Now, nearly 250 community based-organizations that have had to apply to CPS for funding will deal only with DFSS, which already oversees federal funding for Head Start programs. Advocates have been asking for this change for a long time, as community organizations that rely on funding from both CPS and DFSS are frustrated by having to deal with two bureaucracies.

“Multiple pre-K funding sources, fiscal agents, and program types create challenges for parents and providers, with complicated processes for enrollment, prioritization and resource allocation,” wrote the members of the mayor’s second-term priorities committee in a detailed report last fall. “The result is a fragmented system where administration is based on funding regulations rather than integrated objectives to meet children’s and parent’s needs.”

(The second-term priorities committee analyzed the administration of the city’s preschool programs with the help of the nonprofit Civic Consulting Alliance, which also made suggestions about centralizing administration.)

Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy for New America, a nonprofit policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C., says the changes underway in Chicago “sound like a positive move, both from an administrative perspective … and also from the families’ perspective, just being able to submit one application.”

Bornfreund says that while the administration of preschool programs in Chicago might be more fractured than in other places, figuring out how to centralize services “is something that a lot of cities and states grapple with because there’s lots of different funding streams at lots of different levels to support preschool.”

But having a more centralized approach can help city governments avoid duplicate counts and get a truer sense of how many children are really being served.

Cost savings expected from overhaul

With DFSS poised to oversee all of the funding to community groups, CPS officials last month laid off 10 employees from the Office of Early Learning and closed three vacant positions in order to eliminate redundant functions. Those positions are not being recreated in DFSS, officials say.

CPS officials say the cuts will save about $1 million annually. In addition, Negron expects other staffing reductions and contractual savings related to the consolidation of administrative work will save another $6 million.

Those savings will be used to increase the number of full-day preschool slots from about 16,000 to 17,000 by the 2017-2018 school year, mostly by converting existing half-day slots into full-day slots.

City officials announced the new full-day slots at the same time CPS officials were asking principals to make millions of dollars in new budget cuts, a move that Emanuel’s critics derided as a “PR stunt” to divert attention from the budget cuts and layoffs.

“Even if we believe this number of 17,000, it still means that this program would only reach 24 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in this city,” Matt Luskin, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union said during a press conference last month. “This demand for universal access is something we need to keep pushing for, and this doesn’t come close to addressing it.”

In fact, while the number of low-income children in preschool has grown under the Emanuel administration, city officials acknowledge that just one-third of low-income 4-year-olds are in full-day programs. “To place all low-income 4-year-olds in a full-day program, the City needs to convert an estimated 13,000 seats from half-day to full-day, plus add an estimated 4,400 new full-day opportunities,” the mayor’s second-term committee wrote.

So far, the city’s full-day preschool expansion has been funded by a combination of traditional grants and new sources of revenue, including some proceeds from the controversial red-light camera program, and from new federal preschool expansion grant dollars that the state won in late 2014. In addition, the city turned to an unusual loan structure, which Catalyst reported could cost the city twice as much in the long term, to pay for some new slots that were rolled out last year.

Negron admits there’s a lot of work left to do to reach the goal of universal, full-day preschool for all children from low-income families in the city.

“We’ll keep trying to use every mechanism we can to get there,” he says. “This is really about, from the mayor’s perspective, how do we expand full-day knowing that it’s expensive but that it’s what people want?”

Catalyst reporter Kalyn Belsha contributed to this story.

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

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