Stop the Violence: The Preschool Problem

June 2, 2009 (CHICAGO) When state legislators approved Preschool for All in 2006, it was to allow access to high quality, early education to all 3 to 5-year-olds, free of charge. Priority would be given to those children at highest risk for academic failure and who were severely impoverished. The problem is those children considered to have the greatest need for preschool are the least likely to be enrolled.

Singing songs may be fun, but it's also serious business for preschoolers at the Chicago Urban Day School.

"It gives them the opportunity to be exposed to an education at an early age and when they go to kindergarten, they're ready." Said Georgia Jordan, executive director, Chicago Urban Day School.

Georgia Jordan has owned and operated the Chicago Urban Day School in the Englewood neighborhood for 37 years. Despite her school's certification to offer preschool for all, she has watched enrollment dwindle to less than half the school's capacity.

"Those parents who are really concerned about their children getting a good education, I believe are the parents that we still have here," said Jordan.

Rachelle Conner is one of those parents. She enrolled 5-year-old Jaylin, because of the hard lesson she learned with her oldest son, Lushawn, who is now 17. She kept him home as a toddler and believes that contributed to his having to repeat third grade.

"When he entered into kindergarten, typically your child needs to know his ABCs, how to count from one to ten. They needed to know that A is for apple, B is for ball. He didn't know any of that, none of his vowel sounds. I taught what I learned in kindergarten and thought that he would be right on track and he's still playing catch-up, still to this day," said Conner.

But Conner sees a significant difference in Jaylin.

"You can give him five blocks, tell him I need you to make ten. He can put five more blocks down there quick. You can tell him, Jaylin, I have ten blocks. I need seven. He can pull three away quick. He's only in preschool going into kindergarten," said Conner.

That's the difference Judith Walker-Kendrick wants all parents to see. She's a member of the Illinois Early Learning Council and focuses on those deemed 'hard to reach.'

"We're really not looking for hard to reach children. We're really looking for hard to reach parents. We're talking about those families that basically aren't motivated to get their children to preschool, who aren't responding to the posters on the bus," said Walker-Kendrick.

That could be as many as half of all low income families in Chicago with children aged 3 of 5, according to a recent report by a parents' advocacy group called PowerPAC, or Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew - Policy Action Council. That's significant because many experts believe academic failure can be directly linked to violent and criminal behavior later in life.

"The importance of early learning in setting the tone for the future really is critical; how to get along with people, the socio-emotional development of children, how to share even. Some of those things are really critical to your long term development," said Walker-Kendrick.

"You get them in school at an early age, they're less likely to drop out. They're less likely to get involved with gangs and drugs," said

PowerPAC is now working to encourage enrollment through direct outreach in communities such as the Cabrini Green public housing area where their survey shows as many as 64 percent of children are not enrolled. Volunteers go door to door, passing out books to children and chatting up the virtues of early learning to their parents.

Nelly Torres leads volunteers through her Humboldt Park community. She says the reasons for lack of participation vary by neighborhood.

"In my community, Humboldt Park-West Town, we're encountering parents who are immigrants. They don't have their documents, social security or their legal papers so they're afraid of enrolling their kids. As far as the other communities, it's about the grandparents are raising their grandchildren and two and a half hours, it's like it's not worth it," said Torres.

For parents like Conner, who has seen first-hand the difference preschool can make, there's nothing worth more.

"Being a parent is living unselfishly. It should be all about your children. You should want to give them the best, if you got to get up in the morning, get up. Take them to school. Be happy about it," said Conner.

The PowerPAC report recommends a number of changes to the Preschool for All program to target hard to reach families. They include providing transportation, adjusting preschool schedules and reducing co-payments for some all day programs. Click here to read the complete report.

.Of course, all of these suggestions would require additional funding to implement. There is hope that the federal stimulus package may bring some money to the program.

For more information, visit the following Web sites:

Voices for Illinois Children:

Illinois Action for Children:

Ounce of Prevention Fund:

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