Low Income Chicago Children Facing Barriers to Pre-School

by June 12, 2009

CHICAGO (NNPA) – Three years after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched a bold initiative to provide universal pre-school for all 3-and 4-year-olds, a new report shows that children in low-to-moderate income communities are still falling through the cracks. In 2006, Blagojevich created the Preschool for All program that aimed to expand the number of pre-school slots, especially for economically disadvantage toddlers. But a report, called “Why isn’t Johnny in preschool” found that between 40 to 64 percent of preschool-aged children were not enrolled in any structured preschool or Head Start programs.

“Raising children in our communities can be difficult,” said Rosazlia Grillier of POWER-PAC, a citywide parent organizing group that released the report.

“There are so many obstacles that people in our community face: lack of employment and affordable housing, very few resources, and underachieving schools,” Griller said, adding that overcoming these obstacles starts with a solid educational foundation.

“Preschool is a critical step in getting our kids out of poverty and violence,” she added.

POWER-Pac members fanned out across 19 communities to conduct door-to-door surveys to isolate why low-income minorities were not enrolling their children into preschool.

The group interviewed more than 5,000 parents and caregivers over a two-year period. Surveys conducted within Chicago Housing Authority developments had the highest percentage (64) of preschool-aged children not in early learning programs or Head Start.

The report identified several issues, including high cost of childcare and rigid income caps as barriers to parents enrolling their children into preschool. The report also made a recommendation to address the low enrollment rates among Blacks and Latinos.

The report cited parents’ frustration with the varying paperwork needed for different programs. Some centers asked for proof of income, proof of residency and social security numbers. In the Latino community, parents fear this information would be used to check immigration status.

Grillier said streamlining the application process into a one-stop-shop model would make it easier for parents to take advantage of early learning programs. The report also cited lack of transportation to programs and conflicting work schedules with programs’ operational hours. The report found that parents often had to be a work at the same time their child needed to be at daycare. The report recommended more full-day preschool options.

The report also recommended targeted public awareness campaigns to removed cultural barriers preventing parents from enrolling their children in preschool. The report found parents do not understand how preschool can help children reach developmental milestones.

Also, the survey found that parents often feel their toddlers are too young to attend preschool. “Some parents feel that their child isn’t ready, which really is a myth,” Grillier said.

The group has already made some strides in removing some of these barriers. They have partnered with Illinois Action for Children to secure funds from the CHA to create peer educator programs where parents educate other parents about preschool. The group also won a commitment from the Chicago Public Schools to fund walking school busses.

POWER-Pac member MaryAnn Plummer knows walking school busses work. The Englewood grandmother of 27 and great-grandmother of four, organized several community residents to walk kids to and from preschool. Plummer said this helps grandparents raising grandchildren since many seniors have physical limitations and cannot take their grandchildren to preschool.

“This, we found out worked well,” Plummer said. “We increased the enrollment of pre-schoolers, and we helped the parents out.”

Plummer, who conducted some of the surveys, said she was not surprised by low enrollment numbers. She contends closing traditional public schools in Englewood left parents with few options.

“Some of the schools in Englewood were closing and that is where some of the preschool programs were,” said Plummer, who enrolled her now-grown children in preschool starting at age two. “That’s 40-54 slots we are losing right there.”

Kellie Magnuson, of Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), said the report is a by-product of POWER-Pac’s early efforts to curb the cradle to prison pipeline that has entrapped so many minorities.

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