Chicago Is Offering More Preschool But Not Everyone Is Buying It

Susie An / WBEZ
Susie An / WBEZ

Chicago Is Offering More Preschool But Not Everyone Is Buying It

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Chicago Public Schools has a grand plan to offer preschool for all 4-year-olds in the city by 2022.

But as its rolls out a seemingly uncontroversial idea, the plan is generating plenty of controversy.

Many community-based early childhood centers say the school district’s expansion is hurting them, undercutting their enrollment and putting their centers at risk of shutting down. This could reduce offerings for not just preschool but for children zero to 3 years old.

And now, one Northwest Side community is balking at CPS’ offer to build a new preschool facility that could serve 200 children.

CPS officials shared the proposal at a Norwood Park Elementary School local school council meeting Tuesday night. It’s part of a $120 million set aside in CPS’ budget this year to open 100 new preschool classrooms.

But parents and community members were skeptical.

“I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin and I feel like you are showing us these pictures of what you want to build without any of the metrics,” Nicole DeRosa, a parent at Norwood, said pointing at pictures of the proposed center presented.

Standing in front of more than 70 area residents, district officials argued there is a huge need for preschool in the area.

“Anyway you look at it, the most severe full-day pre-K capacity deficit that we have in the city of Chicago is on the Northwest side and we are right at the epicenter of it here at Norwood Park,” said James Dispensa, director of demographics and planning for CPS.

The proposed early childhood center would be next to Norwood Park Elementary and have about 10 classrooms that could fit around 20 preschoolers each by fall of 2020, according to CPS officials. The idea is to also bring 4-year-olds from areas including Edison Park, Forest Glen and portions of Portage Park. Norwood Park Elementary currently has preschool classrooms in its existing building.

The city this year began its preschool expansion in 28 high-need community areas, primarily on the South and West sides. In most cases, CPS officials said they opened classrooms using available classrooms. They said that’s not an option in the Norwood Park area.

“We simply don’t have the space in existing neighborhood schools so we have to create that space,” said Michael Abello, chief of early childhood education for CPS.

But residents called this proposal “a quick fix,” adding that the building design looks more like a prefabricated mobile unit that doesn’t match the school’s unique architecture. They also worry it will take up green space on the Norwood Elementary campus and will increase rush hour traffic.

CPS officials said repeatedly that this proposal is in the pre-design state. “Nothing has been final; I can’t emphasize that enough. The reason why we are not responding to anything is because we don’t have anything else to share with you,” said Abello, adding that he also wants input from the community over the next few months.

But most residents weren’t buying it.

“I vote no on this project and I wish you will move it somewhere else. If you are planning for September of 2020, this is a done deal,” said Diane Blaszczyk, who lives in the area. Blaszczyk and others said the district should use nearby empty Catholic school buildings. “You could use their buildings instead of CPS keep wasting money in building these kinds of buildings.”

CPS officials say they are having similar conversations with other communities across the city as they move to expand free preschool in all 77 communities under a timeline established under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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