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Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has Chicago preschool providers worried

February 7, 2019
Cassie Walker Burke

El Valor runs the second-largest network of early childhood education centers in Chicago, after the public school system itself. Until this fall, several of its centers on the city’s South and Southwest sides had long waitlists.

Then Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago would embrace universal education for 4-year-olds. As schools opened classrooms across the city and families followed, El Valor suddenly had to scramble to fill its 1,000-plus spots. Its employees staged community baby showers, taped fliers to pizza boxes, worked block parties, and fanned out door to door.

“It felt like ‘Do or die,” said Rey Gonzalez, El Valor’s CEO. “We had to meet full enrollment by Oct. 1.”

But even if El Valor does recruit more families, the successful community-based program and others like it could still face radical change.

Emanuel’s big-budget, top-down expansion of public preschool has provoked high-anxiety among nonprofit and community-based pre-kindergarten centers that operate on precarious, narrow margins — and there appears to be no immediate relief in sight. So far, Chicago’s speedy pre-kindergarten rollout has fallen short in coordination, consultation, and communication, advocates say, and some educators worry that it could end up diminishing high-quality options for Chicago’s infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who need it the most.

“There are fundamental changes going on, from what we offer to families as a city to how parents choose where they want their education to occur, and we’ve not quite caught up with that as a system,” said Karen Berman, a member of the state’s influential Early Learning Council. She’s also Illinois policy director at the Ounce of Prevention, a Chicago-based early childhood advocacy group.

Acknowledging the hardship, the city intends to help guide nonprofit centers and community providers through a forthcoming bid for more than $220 million in federal and state dollars. The city is using the grant competition to encourage community providers to shift services away from 4-year-olds and toward infants and toddlers, instead of competing with the school district to serve preschoolers.

“Any school district that has expanded capacity for 4-year-olds sees that parents choose to go to schools,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the mayor’s early learning chief and his point person on the city’s universal pre-K effort.

She acknowledged that Chicago is experiencing growing pains similar to those of other cities who’ve rolled out universal pre-K, and believes that families will benefit if more providers refocus on an age group desperately needing quality care: infants and toddlers. “There is opportunity for growth in all parts of our system, but it’s going to take change in all parts of our system,” she said.