Jun 2, 2009
Rosazlia Grillier knows the value of early learning; the Englewood mother attended Head Start when she was a child, and so have her two daughters.
“There are so many obstacles for children in our communities, and early learning gives them a jump start on life,” she said. “High quality early learning programs are part of a pathway out of poverty.”
As an activist with the citywide parents organization POWER-PAC (and a trainer with the group’s sponsor, Community Organizing and Family Issues), Grillier has been part of a grassroots mobilization over the past year which increased participation in preschool by 25 percent in Englewood.
Even though Illinois has taken the lead among states in creating and providing acccess to early learning programs, POWER-PAC members in low-income communities could see that many children weren’t participating, Grillier said. The group’s efforts over the past few years have helped inspire a broader effort to connect “hard-to-reach” families with early learning opportunities.
POWER-PAC’s approach has been two-fold — surveying parents to learn more about obstacles to participation, and experimenting with solutions to address those obstacles.
Last week the group released a report on a series of surveys in which members interviewed over 5,000 families with young children in 19 low-income communities in Chicago. They found that nearly half of eligible children are not in preschool.
The survey explores a range of obstacles to enrollment. First is a system that is “a confusing and frustrating maze,” with a variety of programs with widely varying eligibility standards, often involving complex enrollment procedures requiring extensive documentation.
A family that is turned away from one program is often not informed that they might qualify at another program a few blocks away, said POWER-PAC organizer Kelly Magnuson.
The report advocates “a dramatic overhal of our nation’s early education programs to create one seamless system supporting quality, full-day, year-round universal preschool.”
In the meantime, it calls for a simplifying the registration process, reducing co-payments to make programs affordable, and building new facilities in communities where preschool options are currently insufficient.
The report calls for funding for van service for preschool and stipends for volunteer conductors of “walking schoolbuses” to address transportation barriers; expanded preschool schedules to accommodate family and work schedules; and an aggressive media campaign on the importance of early learning — backed by home-visiting programs to support young parents and caretaking grandparents, as well as funding for community-based outreach.
Parent-to-parent contact is crucial in low-income and especially immigrant communities where public officials do not always inspire trust, said Magnuson.
The summer POWER-PAC members are working with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services as Head Start Ambassadors, promoting the program door-to-door, at block parties and summer festivals, and at WIC offices and social service agencies. The group is also in discussion with CPS on piloting a “walking schoolbus” program.