Chicago Public Schools has long offered free preschool to many of the city’s low-income children. This month, the district will launch a preschool program for parents who can pay.
“A lot has been done for low-income children,” Board President Gery Chico told the Chicago City Council education committee in a Dec. 14 meeting. “But if someone makes over $32,000, we need to serve those needs, too.”
But some critics say the board is devoting resources to accommodate middle-class children before it has fully served low-income families.
“We think it’s fine to bring middle-class kids into the system, but not at the expense of at-risk kids,” says Laurie LeBreton of Parents United for Responsible Education.
Tuition-based preschools will cost parents $5,800, or roughly $120 per week, for 48 weeks. By comparison, the average cost of private preschool tuition is about $9,000 a year.
A pilot program—set to serve 400 children in 13 schools that volunteered—will operate five days a week from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The program will also have an educational component for its 3- and 4-year-old students. Classes will begin February 5. CPS officials expect the program to expand to 20 schools by August
“We want to get kids early and get them into an academic regimen,” says Schools CEO Paul Vallas. “We’d like the curriculum to complement the kindergarten curriculum. We also plan to tap our city resources and expose children to arts and museums.”
Classes will be limited to 20 children and will be staffed by a certified teacher, a trained teacher’s aide and a board-trained parent tutor. CPS has budgeted $720,000 in start-up costs to stock each class with two computers, preschool furniture and supplies.
Beverly Blackwood, principal of Douglas Elementary, says she signed up as a test site because working parents often ask her about preschool programs. “There are a lot of professionals who work nearby at Illinois Institute of Technology and the College of Optometry who were interested in a program like this,” she says.
Many of the children enrolled in Douglas’ tuition-based preschool are already in private daycare elsewhere, Blackwood adds. But parents are transferring their children to take advantage of CPS’ lower fee and the program’s educational components. “[Parents] like the fact that this will be more than just baby sitting,” she explains.
Chicago Public Schools
While many principals and parents applaud the move, some childcare advocates, who also testified at the City Council hearing, have expressed concerns.
For one, some suspect the board is offsetting the cost of tuition-based preschool by diverting resources away from needy children. “Space is the problem,” says LeBreton. More than 1,290 at- risk children are eligible for state-funded preschool programs, but schools don’t have enough classrooms to serve them, she adds. Another 5,100 are on waiting lists to determine eligibility.
Critics also complained that most of the tuition-based preschools are opening in affluent neighborhoods, and that low-income children will be separated from those in the tuition-based program.
Armando Almendarez, who oversees early childhood programs for CPS, balks at those criticisms.
CPS continues to expand its subsidized preschool programs, he says. An additional 12 state pre-kindergarten classes opened this year, bringing the district total to well over 300, he adds. Also, the number of preschools the board supports through subcontracts with community groups has grown from 2,600 to 3,000.
“Students will not be segregated,” he says. Five slots per class will be reserved for low-income children, he adds. “Whatever the school gets for the program—computers, special equipment, will be for all the kids. No one will have more than the other.”
The first wave of tuition-based preschools are opening in schools that already have space, and those schools tend to be in gentrifying neighborhoods, Almendarez counters. However, two more sites will be opened in non-gentrifying neighborhoods this spring. Schmid Elementary in the Pullman is slated to open its preschool in March, and Clay Elementary in Hegewisch will be up and running by April, he says.
Still, some private childcare providers say they feel threatened by CPS’ program. “When [CPS] first announced its intention to enter the tuition-based market for early care, many community-based providers were astonished,” Leon Walker, who owns three South Side day care centers, told the City Council’s Education Committee.
Walker wants the board to consider the recommendations of private preschool providers when selecting sites for additional preschools. “In order to ensure a harmonious effort, we will have to examine the supply and demand characteristics for child care, community by community, block by block,” Walker told committee members.