CPS hasn’t announced yet which schools will be able to keep offering preschool programs in the fall. But the announcement is likely coming soon, because the district has launched a new centralized enrollment process that will ask families who want their children to attend preschool programs in CPS schools to apply by May 3.

The previous preschool application instructions (last updated in November) do not note any such deadline; the deadlines varied from school to school.

Families will be able to apply online; in person at 13 sites around the city during business hours and at three sites on Saturday mornings; or at their local schools, but only during designated sessions where representatives from the program will be present.

The application form asks families to list their top three school choices, and for proof of family income and government benefits (a common eligibility measure for early childhood programs).

Before, parents filled out a less-detailed application – with questions only about students’ language, a family’s income range, and whether a student was homeless – and gave them to individual schools. With the new applications, CPS could potentially prioritize families system-wide based on need.

It was not immediately clear whether parents will be able to get spots in pre-K programs after the May 3 deadline. Families who apply by May 3 will receive offer letters by early June, and will be asked to register at their schools in person by June 17, according to the application booklet.

For years, early childhood advocates have criticized the maze of applications families must navigate to enroll in preschool.

Yet one principal contacted by Catalyst, who asked that her name not be used, says she is concerned the new application process will make it harder for schools to form a relationship with parents from the time that parents start looking into programs.

It might be hard on parents, she says, to go to a school but then discover they have to go somewhere else to register.

“It is probably in the long run easier to have a more centralized process, but in the short term (for) parents who have done this before and applied at the schools, it will be a change,” says another principal, Tatia Beckwith of Ray Elementary.

Separate systems for CPS, city

And even with CPS’ registration new process, it appears there will still be at least two separate application processes: one for CPS schools, and another for city-funded programs.

Gloria Harris, co-vice chair of the parent organization POWER-PAC, says that “we were in on some of the conversations” about the application process, “but we are still confused about it.”

“POWER-PAC parents have been advocating for a coordinated application process for early childhood programs for years,” Harris says. “(But) we are concerned that the sites are primarily focused on the CPS application process and would not be that helpful for parents who are trying to navigate all the different CPS and (city-funded) center-based programs. What we would recommend is that a (city) representative also be available at each of those sites.”

Harris adds that she is concerned many families will slip through the cracks because of the early-May deadline.

“We know from experience, from door-knocking in the summer, that in many cases families are not focused on enrolling their 3- and 4-year-olds until school starts,” she says. “We encourage a plan to reopen application sites either late in the summer or at the beginning of the school year to take another round of applications.”

She is also worried parents may not want to provide detailed information and proof of income for the application.

“It is just a short period of time. April 3 is today, so now they have less than a month,” Harris says. “I’m hoping it works and doesn’t confuse people.”

Matt Smith, a spokesman for the city, notes that the Department of Family and Support Services launched an online portal last November to streamline information about various preschool programs. But enrollment is still done program by program.

Giving priority to neediest communities

The move comes as program providers and advocates are anxiously awaiting word on who will keep preschool programs, given a new selection process, known as Ready to Learn, that aims to give more spots to high-quality programs and those that operate in the neediest areas of the city.

Final decisions were originally expected in February or March, but have been put on hold due to the school closings process.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Beckwith had not heard whether her school was one of those picked to offer a program. She says she has no idea if the school’s application will be successful.

The preschool program serves many children of University of Chicago graduate students. Many of the children, Beckwith points out, come from low-income families and do not speak English as their first language.

The plan has come in for criticism from some who fear it could make programs close and put teachers’ jobs at risk.

Brynn Seibert of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, a union that represents some preschool and child care staff, says the process has lacked community input.

“There’s no evidence that competition leads to higher-quality programs or better outcomes for young children. Some communities may lose Head Start and preschool slots, which will only further destabilize low-income communities,” Seibert said in a statement.

The Latino Policy Forum is also keeping an eye on the potential shift in early childhood seats. Education Director Cristina Pacione-Zayas says she’s been working to get Chief Early Childhood Officer Beth Mascitti-Miller “up to speed” on demographic trends in the district.

“Our concern is trying to make sure the resources align with the demographic shifts,” Pacione-Zayas says. “Latinos are only enrolled [in preschool] one-third of the time,” largely because of a lack of access to programs in Latino neighborhoods.

Tom Layman, vice president of program development at the child care advocacy organization Illinois Action for Children, says he hopes the new process will make the funding process more transparent.

He says there isn’t much new about the concept that early childhood programs should go to where the need is.  “I don’t think it should have been news to agencies but it was of course a new step” to say their funding would depend on it, Layman says.

“The city contracted with Chapin Hall to develop a ‘heat map,’ a map of communities that had large numbers of families in poverty and with other risk factors for children,”  Layman says. “At this point we believe the city went in the right direction, and we believe everything is in place for them to make their decisions.”

New providers are also hoping they get funds.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says that “a small handful” of charter schools applied to be part of the district’s new pool of early education providers.

Before the Ready to Learn process, Broy says, charters were often frustrated by the red tape required to offer programs.

This article has been updated to reflect Tom Layman’s correct title and to include additional information on the preschool application process.

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