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Parents push early learning

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.

Promoting early education in Englewood

Early education slots in Englewood are filling up, Catalyst reports.  It’s the result of a collaboration of groups brought together at a forum this spring, co-convened by Catalyst and building on the work of POWER-PAC parents who went door-to-door to learn about obstacles to enrollment and help parents overcome them (covered by Newstips last December).    

Going Door-to-Door for Early Learning

For over a year, a group of parents and grandparents in  low-income communities have been going door-to-door, doing surveys, outreach, and home visits, researching and promoting early learning.  They’ll discuss their work Monday as part of a symposium celebrating the accomplishments of the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Project.

In the course of a year, members of the parents group POWER-PAC and allies surveyed 2500 families in Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.  As interest in their work grew, they were asked to conduct outreach for Head Start, and began working with Illinois Action For Children on a home-visiting program for CHA families with small children.

They’re trying to identify barriers to early education in low-income communities and come up with ideas to overcome them, said POWER-PAC organizer Kelly Magnuson.

Issues range from mobility and transportation to security concerns to “a huge lack of awareness” of the importance of early learning as well as of early learning opportunities.  Some 40 percent of families they contacted did not know of any resources for pre-school children in their community, Magnuson said.

For those who might wish to enroll their system, a vastly complicated preschool system is difficult to navigate, she said.

Despite the state’s Preschool For All program, an estimated 15,000 low-income children in low-income Chicago communities aren’t enrolled in preschool, Catalyst reported in September.  Some preschool sites have long waiting lists; others have trouble fillling their slots.  Early education has been shown to have a major impact on children’s success in school and beyond.

Maryann Plummer is an Englewood grandmother and POWER-PAC member who has gone door-to-door doing surveys and home visits.  Many young mothers she’s encountered “have too many problems of their own,” she said.

“They’ve got problems finding a place to stay or putting food on the table, finding a job or staying off drugs,” she said.  “We heard a lot of [young parents say they’re] not worried about early learning — their kids will go to school when they’re five — they’re worried about how to pay rent.”

In home visits she brings learning games and books and explains the importance of early education.

“You have to get through to the parents first and let them see the importance,” she said.  She tells them: “You want to give your child the opportunity you didn’t have.  You want to see the best for your child.

“And they’re buying it.”

Magnuson, an organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues, said having  community members doing surveys and outreach is crucial to getting through to new parents and caretaking grandparents.

Leaders from POWER-PAC will present results and recommendations from their work (one idea: add funding for transportation to the state’s Preschool For All program) at Monday’s symposium on the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Program, an 18-month effort administered by Illinois Action For Children to bring early education opportunities to at-risk children.  Other workshops will discuss collaborations with city agencies and schools as well as parks, libraries and clinics which incorporated early literacy activities into their programs.

Also on display will be “Big City, Little Learners,” an exhibit documenting the project’s effort to bring state-of-the-art teaching methods to 11 schools and child care centers. Teachers and young students explored the city and used activities like mailing a letter, riding a bus, or going to a candy store to develop topics for investigation.

The symposium takes place Monday, December 17, 3 to 7 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph.  Info at 773-564-8801



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