WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.When Illinois lawmakers voted last year to increase early education funding, they proudly labeled the plan “Preschool for All.” The extra $45 million last yearâ€”with a vow to add $90 million more by 2008â€”made headlines nationwide, and it’s already opened classrooms to thousands more kids. But a new report says many of Illinois’ poorest children are being shut out of the plan. For Chicago Public Radio Monique Parsons reports.
ambi: (at bus stop) Chicago 66, Chicago, Navy Pier…. bus pulls away……
Just before 9 o’clock in the morning, Marta Flores steps off a CTA bus onto the sidewalk of busy Chicago Avenue. She’s an energetic 22-year-old, but she already looks weary as she carries her tiny daughters tucked beneath each arm, like two little dolls. Her 5-year-old son runs ahead, carrying the diaper bag, as they get off the CTA bus.
FLORES: Toma dos autobuses que es el de Chicago y de la Kedzie.
It’s an hour commute for her to reach the only preschool that had room for her kids: Erie House in West Town. Flores would love to find a preschool like this near home in Brighton Park, but she can’t: they’re all full.
FLORES via TRANSLATOR: Yes, it’s a good program. That’s why we sacrifice to get here in this way. It’s better they’re in school. I feel that at a school they’re going to learn more things than someone like a babysitter or my family could teach them. And they’re learning two languages.
The truth is she’s lucky she found a school at all. In Illinois’ growing Latino neighborhoods, there simply aren’t enough preschools to go around. A group called Latinos United is urging the state to help fund more preschools.
Executive Director Maricela Garcia says their survey found that early childhood education now trumps immigration and housing as the most pressing issue for Latinos in Illinois – most of whom live outside the city of Chicago.
GARCIA: So that’s why we focus this year on requesting that the state approves in a capital budget to include $25 million to build five new facilities in the areas that have been identified as grossly underserved: those areas are Cicero, Joliet, Aurora, Chicago Heights, and some areas in Chicago.
Chicago Public Schools added 500 more preschool spots in public schools last year, thanks to state “Preschool for All” money. Most of these spots are in Latino neighborhoods. Barbara Bowman heads the CPS early childhood department. She says it’s not enough.
BOWMAN: last spring we did a pretty careful review of our waiting list to find out how many children in the Latino communities are being underserved. We came up with a list of about 1800 names of children that would be eligible to come but that we don’t have any space for 23.
There’s little room for preschool classes in Latino neighborhoods because local schools are already overcrowded. Latinos United director Garcia estimates far moreâ€”about 6,000 Latino kids are on waiting lists for preschool in Chicago.
Bowman disputes that. But she says schools must find creative ways to squeeze more Latino kids into public preschools.
BOWMAN: So what we have done is to start a couple of pilot programs, one is called “Padre to Padre”, which is a mother-child program, where we bring the mothers and children into the center and provide them with activities that parents can do with their children during the week. Hopefully next year we will have a number of those programs going.
But part-time preschool like this is tougher for working families. And whether it’s effective is another question. Many experts say high-risk kids benefit most from preschools that are intensive and include lots of services for parents. That’s what you’ll find at El Valor.
TEACHER: Ya vamos a poner la musicita para que bailan…
Estelle Morales watches her daughter’s teacher organize an end-of-year “beach party” in the classroom. The program is a short walk from her home.
MORALES via TRANSLATOR: What can I say? I’m very happy because the teachers help me a lot with my daughter. I’m proud of this program because, thank God, my daughter is progressing. I feel she’s prepared to go to kindergarten.
El Valor’s leaders say it costs about $10 million to build a center like this one, which serves about 250 preschoolers. They’re opening a new site next month in nearby Little Village – built with funds cobbled together from the city of Chicago and private and corporate donors. There’s already a waiting list.
Latinos United says a $25 million infusion from the state could speed similar projects along – and reach more kids.
ESTRADA: You can’t build child care centers fast enough, and no one’s building them.
Ric Estrada is director of Erie House, a resource for Chicago’s diverse waves of immigrants for more than a century. He also helped write the Latinos United report, which noted that more than 90 percent of Latino kids in the U.S. are citizens — and eligible for taxpayer support.
ESTRADA: I believe we should invest in these children or else we are going to pay for it down the road. And again, many, many, many studies – and people not just sociologists and psychologists and educators, but now it’s economists and others, who are chiming in and saying for every dollar you spend on early childhood services you are going to save 7 down the road. And that’s a conservative estimate.
Latinos United isn’t giving up yet. In the coming months, Latino advocates will be working hard to make sure that public and private money ends up in their growing neighborhoods, where it can benefit the children they believe need it most.
For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Monique Parsons.