Parents whose children were affected by Catholic Charities’ sudden late-November closure of three day care centers say the transition still has them scrambling in the middle of the school year. Advocates claim the loss is affecting children of all ages beyond the centers’ Head Start programs, and disrupting the daily rhythm of countless families in Back of the Yards, Chicago Lawn, and Little Village, as the Weekly first reported. They believe it could’ve been prevented.
Lucero Montero watched her two kids play in the basement of St. Joseph Church in Back of the Yards on the last day of programming in the three centers. She shook her head at the prospect of quitting her job in order to pick up her third and fourth graders every afternoon, something she had never worried about with Catholic Charities’ After School Care program, which mentored children up to twelve years old.
Staff at St. Joseph Child Development Center would walk students from six different schools in the high-traffic area to the after school program, which fed about eighty children daily, provided homework help, and allowed for indoor play time. According to parents, most of those elementary students have not found an alternative within walking distance during the afternoon, when minors are at the highest risk of going unsupervised.
Montero was among the dozens of parents attending the evening GED classes at the center, too. English and computer literacy classes were also offered by instructors from the University of Illinois at Chicago free of charge. Since the center’s closing, English-language classes have been relocated to San Miguel School Community Center and other adult courses were moved to the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.
“The truth is, not even the teachers knew they were going to close,” Montero said. “They even told the teachers to go out and recruit new students over the summer, and to what end?”
Teachers and staff were not authorized to speak to the media, but hugged their students and took selfies together on the last day of school before the holidays. They will be left without a job.
State Representative Theresa Mah, whose district includes parts of Back of the Yards, was equally perplexed by the rushed closures of Catholic Charities when their facilities were often filled to capacity.
“They said it wasn’t financially feasible. They told me the Head Start contract is five years at a time, and that they couldn’t sign a five-year contract because they knew they couldn’t… fulfill the entire term,” Mah said. “They would’ve known well before November 30th… It’s not what they did, it’s how they did it.”
Catholic Charities director of communications Brigid Murphy maintained that they made their decision in October, “when a number of existing financial challenges… were exacerbated by other factors,” like funding streams that didn’t materialize.
In the summer of 2017, the city consolidated the early learning programs and their associated funders: federal Head Start, state Early Childhood Block Grant, and local Ready to Learn.
The new system created a redistribution formula that significantly reduced or eliminated funds for a long list of day care providers. Murphy acknowledged that while scores of early childhood classrooms were hurt by the city’s new funding structure, Catholic Charities “had no issues with the city’s RFP.”
The city’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) confirmed that in August they awarded grants to Catholic Charities through November 2020. Murphy said her organization declined the funds in October, shortly before sending out letters to Head Start parents, as the DFSS-administered funds were not enough to offset the deficit caused by chronic gaps in both state and private funding.
Moreover, DFSS said Catholic Charities was not eligible for the two emergency funding extensions offered by the city, as Catholic Charities “did not receive a large funding reduction through the RFP process.” Selected day cares, like Little Angels in Englewood, which lost funds equivalent to its operating budget, qualified for a DFSS extension until June, the end of the school year.
“I believe that if [Catholic Charities] really wanted to keep the Head Start program open, they could’ve found partnerships just like they do with their other services,” Mah said.
Days before Catholic Charities ceased operations at St. Joseph, Mah’s office held a resource fair for parents who needed guidance to transfer their kids. She said Catholic Charities made little effort to refer parents to local Chicago Public Schools, so she invited a bilingual CPS representative, as well as nonprofit day care providers like El Hogar del Niño, Gads Hill Center, Chicago Commons, and Illinois Action for Children.
“The city’s Universal Pre-K initiative means that there’s one application system for all preschool classrooms [both CPS and community-based organizations],” said Claudia Ballesteros, a CPS Family Engagement Coordinator who tabled at the fair. “We still have full-day seats in different schools, but most children have to be four to qualify.” There are some half-day slots open for three-year-olds, and five-year-olds qualify for full-day kindergarten if they had a birthday by September.
The shut downs were felt by more than 500 children between two and five years old who were enrolled in the Back of the Yards, Chicago Lawn, and Little Village sites, and it had a ripple effect on more than one hundred school-aged students and adult learners.
The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to requests for comment as to what would happen with the shuttered facilities that once served as community hubs.
“That’s still to be determined. They are ready to work with other providers if they take over the programs and want the space,” Murphy said. “Any interested providers who want to run programming out of our old facilities would work directly with the Archdiocesan real estate office as new tenants.”
The city set the goal of universal pre-K for all four-year-olds by 2021. Parents who are looking for preschool programs in Chicago can apply year-round at chicagoearlylearning.org.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the South Side Weekly.