Tuition-based preschools

The Chicago Public Schools’ tuition-based preschools, aimed at middle-class parents who can afford to pay, have become a North Side phenomenon. And this year, the district is subsidizing expansion to the tune of $2 million a year.

While the number of classrooms north of Madison Street continues to grow, the number south of the city’s north-south dividing line is dwindling.

“I’m having a hard time getting schools and parents south of Hyde Park interested,” says Marsha Brown, who this summer assumed responsibility for CPS tuition preschools. “Parents on the North Side say, ‘Cool.'”

Priced at nearly $7,000 a year, the program is too expensive for many families in communities like South Shore and South Chicago, say some principals.

“Money was an issue,” says Principal Robert Esenberg of Sullivan in South Chicago, where the program had dwindled to five families before it closed in 2002. “Our parents said they could find child care in the area for a lot less. This program didn’t work in our community.”

CPS needs to look into cutting the tuition, says Marie Cobb, community development director for the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore (CIESS). “We haven’t done much work around early childhood education, but $145 a week is steep.”

However, the School Board says it can’t cut costs. The weekly tuition pays only part of the expenses for staff salaries and programs such as music, art and museum partnerships, explains Armando Almendarez, who oversees CPS curriculum development.

The program runs daily from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. and boasts such extras as classroom computers, field trips, fine arts projects and, in some schools, the well-regarded Suzuki-Orff music program. Classrooms are limited to 20 students and each is staffed by a certified teacher, a trained teacher’s aide and a parent tutor.

Tuition runs $145 a week for 48 weeks. Last year, the fee was $135 a week, or close to $6,500 a year.

Tuition preschools were created in 2001. The first sites opened in affluent communities on the city’s North Side. District officials say CPS responded to complaints that there were no programs on the South Side by opening sites in those communities, too.

However, those programs have not fared as well. More than two-thirds of the 30 tuition-based preschool classrooms are located on the North Side, with the highest concentration in Lake View, Lincoln Park and North Center.

Even with the tuition increase, some parents in these communities say the program is a bargain compared to private preschools, which cost an average of $10,000 a year.

Yet, some educators predict the higher fees will drive away parents in less affluent areas, causing more schools to discontinue tuition preschools.

Bouchet Elementary in South Shore lost four of its 20 tuition preschool students. “With the rise in tuition, I don’t know how many we will have this year,” says Principal Robert Lewis.

A tuition-based program at Douglas Elementary, located in a middle-class area on the Near South Side, closed this summer because of under enrollment. “There is something about the culture over there,” says Velma Thomas, a senior assistant to the early childhood education chief officer. Middle income families who live east of King Drive will send their kids to Pershing, but not to Douglas, which is nearby, she explains. “King Drive is a dividing line,” she says.

Two other tuition preschool programs—Sullivan in South Chicago and Schmid in Pullman—were shuttered a year ago. Clay Elementary in Hegewisch also closed one of its two classes last year.

“There is a lot of unemployment in these areas, and the parents wanted subsidies, which we don’t have,” explains Thomas.

Galileo on the Near West Side asked the board to remove its tuition preschool, citing conflicts with its schedule, says Thomas. Another tuition-based program was later opened two miles away at South Loop Elementary to accommodate parents in that area.

More families enrolling

This fall, tuition-based preschool programs have been opened in communities where space was available and parents possessed the desire and economic wherewithal to support them, say CPS officials.

The district anticipates serving 540 children this year, 50 percent more than last year, and it has budgeted $5.7 million to pay for the program. It anticipates tuition fees will recoup $3.7 million.

Five schools are new to the program this year: Audubon (North Center), Hamilton (Lake View), LeMoyne (Lake View), Otis (West Town) and Pershing. Only Pershing is on the South Side. Four other schools, Nettelhorst, Ray, Mayer and Alcott, each will add one classroom; Blaine, the system’s most popular site, is adding two, for a total of five.

Blaine Principal Gladys Vaccarezza says the new classrooms were sorely needed. Recently, a pregnant woman came to inquire about a slot for her unborn child. “We have people call us on a daily basis about the program,” she chuckles. “I have a waiting list already for next year.”

Pershing’s new program is expected to relieve South Loop, where last year parents camped out a day ahead to snare one of the school’s 40 tuition preschool seats. “One person was set up in a lawn chair with food and water,” laughs Almendarez. CPS began registering parents a day early, signing up families until 11 p.m. and opening at 7:30 the next morning, he notes.

Politicians ask for more

Demand for the program remains strong in some areas, says Lucinda Lee Katz, CPS chief officer of early childhood education. Two aldermen have approached her about opening tuition-based preschools and other early childhood programs in their wards. “They want parents to stay in their communities,” she says.

To serve less affluent areas where parents can’t afford the tuition, Katz is mulling a scholarship fund that will partially offset the expense. “The money would come from foundations, alumni and other groups,” she says. “We’d have to raise it.”

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