Educare Center Credit: photo by John Booz

Barbara Abel takes offense when people use the word “baby-sitting” to describe the new infant-toddler program at Chicago Public Schools’ gleaming new National Teachers Academy.

Someone did just that during a recent tour of the new school facility led by Abel, who oversees the infant-toddler program. The comment stopped Abel dead in her tracks.

“That drives me crazy when people say that,” she says. “I told them, ‘Let me make this perfectly clear: We do not do babysitting. What we do is a lot of hard work. What we do takes a lot of knowledge.'”

What Abel and other early childhood educators do is help children begin learning how to learn. The goal is to lay a foundation for children to feel comfortable in their surroundings and begin building social relationships.

Programs for children aged zero to 3 are a response to recent brain research that shows learning begins at birth and that brain development makes quantum leaps during their first three years of life. “The brain is like a sponge during this time,” says Harriet Meyer, president of the nonprofit Ounce of Prevention Fund.

The academy’s program is one of 70 in Illinois that are funded with $21.7 million in state funds. In 1997, early childhood advocates succeeded in getting state legislators to earmark 11 percent of the Early Childhood Block Grant for birth-to-3 programs.

The federal Early Head Start Program funds programs run by 23 community-based organizations that serve more than 2,100 families in Illinois.

Now, some advocates are pushing for a universal-access program for children in this age group, too. “We would be remiss to overlook these important years,” says Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute.

The National Teacher Academy program is the first one in the country set up by a public school system. The program began operating in February with 24 children (who range in age from 6 weeks to 2 years) and plans to double enrollment by fall. Most children are the offspring of teen parents.

Strategies for teaching babies differ markedly from those used for preschool and school-aged children. You won’t see flash cards or alphabet drills in an infant-and-toddler classroom. Rather, teachers will lead activities that establish routines, build relationships and encourage discovery.

The goal is to cultivate trust, create a comfortable environment and build supportive relationships with the children, which is necessary for them to feel at ease to explore the world around them.

“There is no such thing as a curriculum,” Abel notes. “You will not see me write a lesson plan, ever. A zero to 3 program focuses on routine, transition and trust. I am a child developmentalist, not an educator.”

A few miles south, the staff at the Ounce’s Educare Center in Grand Boulevard focuses primarily on babies of teen parents.

On most mornings, 10 o’clock marks the beginning of “circle time” for children in Mildred Ebietomiye’s class of 1-year-olds. That’s when teachers sing songs, read books and play music. Often, as soon as the teachers begin singing, the children automatically start crawling or toddling over to the circle in the center of the room.

“When children are free to trust and feel comfortable and have confidence in relationships, the door for learning is then opened,” Ebietomiye explains. “They gain confidence and start to show mastery of skills.”

Family focus

In the south suburbs, Governor State University created a family development center to go with its zero to 3 program, Smart Start.

The parent education component teaches parents how to “play smart” with their children.

For example, if a child is lining up blocks like a train, the parent can encourage him or her to build a tower, which teaches the concept of “on top.”

Parents also learn that age-appropriate behavior for 2-year-olds is to move from one activity to another and leave a mess behind.

“First time parents might not understand this and wonder why they are unsuccessful when they try to get them to clean up,” says Director Susan Kinsey. “We tell them it’s okay.”

Two days a week, the center offers free activities—art and reading, for instance—for families with infants and toddlers. Smart Start is staffed by college of education graduates and works in partnership with Crete-Monee School District 201-U. State funding covers $350,000 a year in operating expenses.

Getting families involved in zero to 3 programs encourages parents to cultivate an environment at home where their youngster feels comfortable and safe enough to focus on exploring and learning, says Kinsey.

Parents are also a crucial element of early literacy. Two University of Kansas researchers found children from poor and middle class families had vastly different vocabulary growth, an indicator of intellectual development.

The study found that by age 4, a child from an advantaged college-educated family may have been exposed to 45 million words. By contrast, the same aged child whose family is working class may have heard 26 million words and one whose parents are on welfare only 13 million.

Educare hosts support groups for parents, and the National Teaching Academy holds parenting classes for teens to learn about child development. “Involving the entire family is crucial,” says NTA’s Abel.

Educare master teacher Rima Malhorta shares that philosophy. “Parents need to be supported, so they can support their babies.”

The ultimate goal among early childhood advocates is that Illinois families have universal access to preschool and zero to 3 programs.

“We envision universal access from zero to 5 that is high quality and fits parents’ needs and schedules,” says Sean Noble, senior policy associate for Voices for Illinois Children.

However, the cost of infant-toddler programs is steep and it’s unlikely they’ll be included in universal preschool programs anytime soon. Program costs run about $200 a week per child, says Marsha Engquist, president of the National Child Care Association. A facility to serve 140 infants and toddlers would cost roughly $4.6 million, or $33,000 per child.

Nationally, the number of zero to 3 programs has increased in the last seven years, according to Tammy Mann of Zero To Three, an early learning advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

States have been slow to take charge with zero to 3 initiatives, says Mann. “There have been pockets of good things happening [but] we’re not there yet.”

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