Low-Income Chicagoans Scrambling After 3 Preschools Suddenly Close | WBEZ
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Hundreds Of Low-Income Chicago Families Scrambling After Preschools Suddenly Close

Hundreds of parents in Chicago spent the Thanksgiving holiday worrying about where to drop off their children for preschool Monday after three early childhood education centers on the Southwest Side closed their doors to 450 kids last Tuesday.

After two decades, St. Joseph Child Development Center in Back of the Yards and Chicago Lawn Child Development Center near Gage Park won’t be welcoming children. Our Lady of Tepeyac in Little Village closed after 15 years.

Catholic Charities ran these centers for mostly low-income families, creating community anchors in neighborhoods that struggle with street violence and a lack of resources. In addition to preschool, the centers offered after-school care and adult education under one roof.

But after struggling financially for years, the organization said it was forced to close all three preschools for three-to five-year-olds and end its after-school program.

“I feel really sad because my child loved his teacher,” said Teresita Rojas. Her 3-year-old child went to St. Joseph. “He was really happy there.”

This was a major loss for families like Rojas and her child. With the closing, she had to quit her job to care for her toddler. Her older son is also affected. He goes to nearby Chavez Multicultural Academy and went to St. Joseph after school.

Now parents are desperately trying to find a new place for their children, but their options are limited. This comes as other preschools in Chicago are struggling as the school district moves toward universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Catholic Charities families were only notified a month before the closure.

“Why weren’t we given more time?” Rojas asked. “Why didn't they let us know in the beginning of the year?”

Money struggles

The closure came down to funding challenges. In a statement, Catholic Charities said state funding the agency had been counting on didn’t come through in September.

“We did recruit over the summer with plans to continue services into the next five-year contract,” Brigid Murphy, director of communications for Catholic Charities, said in a statement. “It was not until September, when other fiscal developments including the delay of a promised rate increase from the state for the senior services the agency provides, forced our hand.”

There were other funding woes.

For one, many government grants don’t cover the actual cost of program delivery, including Chicago’s recent minimum wage hike. The city said all federal- and state-funded programs must pay the new minimum wage. Most children served by Catholic Charities qualify for Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income children.

“To be clear, we absolutely support a living wage for workers, but then those costs need to be factored into government contracts,” Murphy said.

The minimum wage hike in Chicago has become a double-edged sword for many centers, said Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association.

“We have to find resources to pay staff more and on the other side, many of our families are not qualified for Head Start services because they are making too much money,” after getting a wage hike, Morrison-Frichtl said.

A family of four, for example, can’t make more than $26,000 a year to qualify for Head Start.

In general, the climate for childhood development centers in the city is fragile, Morrison-Frichtl said.

This year the city, which manages public funding for early childhood education, renewed contracts with all its providers for the first time since 2012. Service providers say the new requirements are much more stringent and costly.

“So if you lose one of those funding sources or if it’s decreased, or you know you have a lot of increases in your expenditures, then it’s really hard to provide that quality of services,” Morrison-Frichtl said.

The city also expanded its free preschool programs for 4-year-olds in public schools. As a result, many early childhood centers saw enrollment declines — on top of the funding challenges

Enrollment wasn’t an issue with Catholic Charities. The organization said it simply couldn’t continue to come up with enough money to manage an annual $1 million deficit.

The City’s Department of Families and Support Services (DFSS) has pledged to help former Catholic Charities families and staff, offering two teams to help families find new programs and to assist staff.

Few options for parents

But parents like Teresita Rojas are discouraged. She said there aren’t that many preschool centers in the area that can keep kids until later in the afternoon — and many parents don’t have cars to travel to other communities. They usually get rides to work, she said.

St. Joseph was a big help for single parent Leonor de Leon, who recently came from Guatemala with her two children and lives in a nearby shelter.

“I still don’t have a place for my child and other nearby childcare centers are already full,” she said last week.

St. Joseph offered a lot for her family. It partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Literacy and housed the university’s GED, English and computer classes for parents and other adults.

“We had a community partnership … we saw the value of being able to be housed in the community as opposed to being visitors,” Megan Wells, with the UIC Center for Literacy, said.

UIC was able to move its adult education classes to two different community agencies nearby, but Wells says having a community center that served both children and their parents was a unique combination.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brigid Murphy's first name.

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