Last year, parents from POWER-PAC released the report “Why Isn’t Johnny
in Preschool?” outlining barriers to filling preschool slots in
low-income neighborhoods and recommendations for solving the problem.

Last year, parents from POWER-PAC released the report “Why Isn’t Johnny
in Preschool?” outlining barriers to filling preschool slots in
low-income neighborhoods and recommendations for solving the problem. 

Now, those parents have earned recognition from the city because of the success of their door-to-door outreach to enroll preschool-eligible children. This May, Vanessa Rich, head of the City of Chicago’s Head Start program, recruited POWER-PAC and its parent organization, Community Organizing and Family Issues, to take the Head Start Ambassadors initiative citywide.

POWER-PAC has used the tactic since the summer of 2008, following a forum co-sponsored by Catalyst Chicago on low preschool enrollment in Englewood. The effort was “scattershot” at first, says Ellen Schumer, executive director of COFI.

Initially, 12 parents were hired as Head Start ambassadors in eight neighborhoods. They spent 12 to 20 hours each week conducting outreach, speaking at block parties and aldermen’s town hall meetings and setting up information tables at Laundromats and grocery stores. And, of course, they knocked on doors. (The campaign cost $155,000, paid for by the city’s Head Start program.)

Altogether, the ambassadors had one-on-one conversations with more than 7,000 parents and by COFI’s count, convinced over 750 families to enroll their children.

Personal outreach has been the key to the program’s success, says Schumer.

“POWER-PAC leaders are trained through our community organizing model to have relationship-building conversations,” Schumer explains. “They learn how to ask open-ended questions instead of lecturing or talking at people, to hear what they are struggling with, so they can direct them toward resources.”

Toward the end of the summer, the city directed canvassers specifically to areas near under-enrolled sites, Schumer says. Some paired up with local Head Start staffers to go door-to-door. If a child was not Head Start-eligible, parents were directed to other programs like Preschool for All.

The citywide expansion (paid for with a $200,000 state-funded grant from the Chicago Coalition of Site- Administered Child Care Programs) will allow COFI to hire an additional 20 Head Start parents who will receive the same training as the parent ambassadors, but work fewer hours.

The 20 parents will be part of COFI’s Summer Outreach Team and will go door-to-door with the ambassadors every other Saturday starting in June.

“They know firsthand and are experiencing the benefits of the project. They can speak from their own personal experience about the program and be very convincing for other parents out there,” says Tracy Occomy Crowder, a COFI senior staff member who is overseeing the Head Start Ambassadors project.

Anne Sheahan, director of public information for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, says Head Start programs typically fill their seats by September, but turn over up to 1,000 slots every quarter. “It’s imperative that we continue to do outreach year-long so all of our Head Start opportunities are filled,” Sheahan says.

Head Start ambassadors started their second year of outreach in early May in three communities: Great Grand Crossing, Midway and Garfield Park.

Maryann Plummer and Louise Evans, ambassadors with the pilot program who are now part of this year’s effort, spend four hours every Monday and Thursday walking through Greater Grand Crossing to pass out promotional material including flyers on Head Start and bags with the Head Start logo. Ambassadors keep track of every house, apartment and business they visit and details about anyone they speak with, including whether or not they have preschool-eligible children and if those children are enrolled somewhere.

Evans says the program works with parents “because we look like them. We’re down to earth with them. We can talk their language.”

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