Preschool Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

In a new, state-of-the-art community center near 69th and Sangamon in Englewood, slots for early childhood programs are going begging.

By mid-August, only four of 34 slots in the half-day Head Start were spoken for, and only six of 20 slots in the full-day program. The center has applied for two Preschool for All classes, and needs to fill those as well.

“We are shocked that we are having trouble filling our slots,” says Leon Denton, who oversees the child care programs and is waging a door-to-door campaign in the African-American community to find eligible children.

Meanwhile, a few miles north at the El Hogar Del Nino child care center in Little Village, slots are at a premium.

“In 2000 we opened a new center and all our slots were filled before the doors were opened,” says Director Jane Garza, whose center has eight Preschool for All classrooms and a waiting list of 300 families. “We get applications from everywhere,” she adds, noting that centers in other Latino communities such as nearby Pilsen are in a similar situation.

The bottom line is the same in both communities: Needy children are going without the benefits of early education. According to the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an estimated 15,000 low-income children in Chicago between the ages of 3 and 5 are not enrolled in preschool.

But the barriers in the two communities couldn’t be more different: For African Americans, transportation, safety concerns and misgivings about preschool hold enrollment down. Lack of space is the critical problem in Latino neighborhoods.

Door-to-door survey

In Englewood and West Englewood, there are nearly enough slots (1,323) to serve the estimated 1,500 3- and 4-year-olds who live there. Yet filling those slots has proven difficult, and outreach workers are now canvassing homes to determine why, as well as to get an accurate count of how many children are now in preschool.

“We are trying to make sure the neediest children are served first,” says Tom Layman, vice president of program development for Illinois Action for Children, which commissioned Community Organizing and Family Issues, a grassroots group, to conduct the survey.

Most commonly, the 435 people surveyed cited concerns about safety in the area near preschools, a lack of awareness that preschool is available, and a belief that school begins with kindergarten. A survey in Austin had comparable findings.

“People are not aware of what is in the community,” says Rosazlia Grillier, an Englewood parent and survey worker. “And the surrounding elements around these centers are bad.”

“We have babies having babies. They are not concerned about their child’s education. They dropped out of school themselves,” says Louise Evans, another survey worker who is a parent member of the local school council at Nicholson Elementary.

In some cases, grandparents who were caring for infants as well as young children said that they found it too burdensome to drop off and pick up preschoolers.

Although families didn’t cite economics, survey workers say unfounded fears of losing state child care subsidies may keep parents from enrolling a child. Under state guidelines, families keep the subsidy if a child attends a half-day preschool and is in child care for five hours or more per day.

“There is distrust in the community about what the government can take away from them or do to them,” Grillier agrees. Such fears made it difficult to even conduct the survey, she said. “People didn’t want to talk or they’d tell you they didn’t have any children under the age of 5, but you could see the small children in the house.”

Even when children are enrolled, attendance is often problematic. “They come to school, but not on a regular basis,” says Ava Haji, who oversees CPS Preschool for All sites on the South Side.

Based on the survey, outreach workers suggest remedies such as launching a public awareness campaign about Preschool for All; integrating preschool activities into community school and after-school programs; and parent patrols to escort children to and from sites.

$30 million not enough

In Latino communities, parents like Antonia Juarez are clamoring to enroll their children in preschool but coming up empty-handed.

“I signed up to put my baby in a program when he was still in the womb, and he turned 3 in July. The center is close to home, but there is no space,” says Juarez, who applied for a slot at El Hogar Del Nino.

The National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics reports that over 6,000 Latino children in Chicago are on waiting lists for preschool.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has proposed spending $30 million over three years on capital projects for early childhood programs. Advocates say that is not enough.

“The money the governor is talking about would give us two facilities. That would provide services to about 25 children,” says Maricela Garcia, executive director of Latinos United. The group wants an additional $25 million.

Tony Raden, a co-chair of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s space capacity committee, says $30 million “doesn’t come close to meeting the need.”

Some solutions include providing educational programs for parents and children in Chicago Park District facilities and starting evening preschool programs for families with non-traditional work schedules. The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. received $249,745 from The Joyce Foundation to examine preschool barriers in Illinois, especially those that affect Latinos and children with disabilities.

“We’re doing everything we can,” says Barbara Bowman, who heads CPS’ early childhood education department. “We are using field houses, renting space.”

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