It Takes a Village preschool Credit: Photo by John Booz

Each morning, Shamile Harris takes her 4-year-old daughter, Nakariel, to a home day-care center about a 5-minute car ride away.

But Nakariel won’t be there all day. Soon after arriving, she and five other children in the sitter’s care will be whisked away by a van to It Takes a Village, an accredited day-care center in Austin, for a couple hours of educational activities—learning basics such as numbers and colors, practicing the alphabet, developing social skills by interacting with other children and exercising by performing jumping jacks and toe-touches.

Later, Nakariel and the other youngsters will return to Ruth Kimble’s day-care home, where Kimble can reinforce what the children have learned using techniques she has picked up from It Takes a Village.

Through a two-year-old program in Austin, Nakariel and other children in home-based day-care now have the chance to get a preschool education they would not otherwise receive. Illinois Action for Children, a non-profit advocacy group that launched the program as a special initiative, is expanding it this year into Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

Based on anecdotal evidence from parents like Harris, the program is proving to be a success, program officials say. Harris says Nakariel’s reading skills and social development have improved dramatically, her vocabulary has expanded and, during the course of one month, she learned the numbers one through 100. The preschool sends home packets of work each week so her daughter has activities to do outside school.

“I love It Takes a Village,” Harris says. “My daughter has learned and gained so much. She comes back every day with more knowledge—it just blows me away.”

Best of both worlds

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that when children get to kindergarten, they are “pros,” know what to expect and can perform better, says Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children.

“We’re providing support to [child-care] providers and giving opportunities for children to be in the classroom,” says Jodie Lawton, project manager for early learning programs at Action for Children. “They’re building upon their social and emotional skills, allowing them to be better ready for school.”

Children attend preschool for two and a half hours per day and are taught by a certified early childhood education teacher or a teacher who is pursuing certification. Parents pay only for the home day-care. Transportation and preschool costs are paid for by Action for Children.

The home-based providers can take training in areas such as early literacy and how to work with children who have special needs. Preschool instructors visit the home-based providers weekly to do activities with younger children.

Gwendolyn Harris, who owns It Takes a Village, says that thanks to the program, her center can now provide quality educational services to more children. Children from home-based care “have more kids to interact with. And we provide an academic curriculum to teach the alphabet, shapes and a little bit of reading, depending on how quickly they progress,” she says. (Harris is no relation to Shamile Harris.)

Paulette Harvey, another home-based provider, says she was won over by the chance to give youngsters “the best of both worlds.”

“They get the home-based experience and personal touch as well as the experience of being in [preschool],” she says. “When it’s time to transition into kindergarten, it won’t be such a shock.”

Lawton says some preschools are trying similar arrangements, such as asking home-based providers to bring children in to fill up their classrooms. “But they’re missing the support—the home visits, training for providers and the overall involvement that providers have with the centers,” she says.

Sophia Parker, parent of a 4-year-old son in the program, says she’s interested in placing her son in a new Head Start that will be affiliated with It Takes a Village. She’s pleased that her son is taught at the center by a male instructor, Nikita Walls. “He’s getting guidance from a man a few hours a day,” Parker says.

Previously, family members took care of her son.

“I thought that wasn’t good because they weren’t giving him what he needed socially to develop,” she says. “I’ve realized how much he has grasped from age 3 to 5. He really knows the fundamentals.”

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