If we want to continue making progress, we have to start in the earliest years of a child’s life,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel pronounced emphatically before a packed chamber on October 15, as part of the education component of his 2015 Budget Address to the City Council. “So we have to reach them early and make sure they arrive for kindergarten ready to learn.”
Since he took office in 2011, the expansion of access to early childhood education has been a recurring theme in Mayor Emanuel’s education agenda. Chicago is just one city across the country taking action in response to research that cites strong early learning opportunities as crucial indicators of success later in life. According to research led by University of Chicago professor and Nobel Laureate James Heckman, the years from birth to age five are most important for developing skills that are the foundation for success later in life. Heckman points to a statistic from the Chicago Child-Parent Center that estimates $48,000 in long-term public benefits for every child who receives half-day preschool instruction.
Now, as part of a budget plan that will serve as the Mayor’s re-election platform if it passes through the City Council, the Emanuel administration is taking such research to heart and moving steadily towards institutionalized early learning opportunities with a push to level the playing field for children coming from low-income backgrounds.
For families living on the South and West sides of the city, this plan carries particular significance—this is where the bulk of early childhood program development will take place. $9.4 million worth of capital investment is slated to expand opportunities at ten sites, selected to benefit neighborhoods where the need for more pre-K opportunities is most keenly felt. In 2015, this investment aims to provide half-day preschool opportunities for 1,500 four-year-olds at no cost to families. A $17 million corporate Social Impact Bond over the next four years intends to raise that number to 2,620. According to 2013 census figures, there are approximately 71,500 students eligible for preschool in the City of Chicago, with only fifty-six percent enrolled in some kind of early childhood education program.
Gerardo Arriaga is the principal at Enrico Tonti Elementary School, one of the schools selected for Emanuel’s preschool program expansion. Arriaga hopes that the Mayor’s vocal commitment to early childhood education will translate into concrete benefits for four-year-olds living in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.
“We always hope to provide for more students,” he says, “but space is always an issue in schools.” The school currently serves eighty students, but a proposed four-classroom module addition would allow them to expand enrollment in their half-day pre-kindergarten program. Arriaga isn’t sure if hiring more instructors will be possible, but is enthusiastic about the addition of any resources that will improve the classroom environment for both students and teachers.
“We teach these students the socioemotional skills, the motor skills, and the language and math basics that allow them to come to kindergarten more prepared,” Arriaga says. “pre-K is really having an impact on my students.”
While Arriaga has received preliminary site expansion plans from Chicago Public Schools, officials at another site selected for expansion, Mount Greenwood Elementary, had not been informed of plans for early childhood program implementation at the time they were called for comment. Mount Greenwood does not currently offer any preschool instruction.
Mount Greenwood and Tonti will be joined by Daniel Boone Elementary and a site to serve children in the Marquette Park and West Lawn neighborhoods that has yet to be selected. Six CPS Child-Parent Centers, sites designed to provide educational and family support to low-income communities, are also on the docket for expansion under the four-year plan, including Jose de Diego Community Academy in West Town, Velma Thomas Learning Center in McKinley Park, Melody Elementary School in Garfield-Humboldt Park, Hanson Park Elementary School in Belmont-Cragin, Peck Elementary School in West Eldon, and James Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn.
Despite enthusiasm on the part of educators, officials have voiced mixed sentiments about borrowing money from investors to finance early childhood expansion. In essence, the Social Impact Bond that serves as the four-year plan’s financial cornerstone is a $17 million loan from corporate backers with one big catch. The Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation won’t be paid back on their investment unless the program makes measurable positive impacts on student achievement and kindergarten readiness. But while CPS Board of Education member Henry Bienen expressed uncertainty about the feasibility of basing repayment on these benchmarks, investors have praised the plan as an opportunity to invest meaningfully in the community. “We want to lead by example here in Chicago and encourage more investment nationally in high-quality early childhood education,” said J.B. Pritzker in an October 7 press release.
As it stands, preschool programs in the city of Chicago do not have the capacity to provide services to every three and four-year-old in the city—there are only three seats available for every five eligible students. City Council approval of Emanuel’s budget will increase that number by a small margin, with impacts concentrated in low-income communities—but nearly 25,000 students in the city of Chicago will remain unenrolled in early childhood learning opportunities even if Emanuel’s plan is fully implemented. Considering these limitations, Principal Arriaga is happy to see students from the Chicago Lawn neighborhood as initial beneficiaries. “When Tonti students go to preschool, they come into kindergarten more prepared,” he says. “My dream to provide that for more students is hopefully coming true.”