This school year, Chicago Public Schools saw a shocking enrollment loss of 1,882 students in its preschool programs, nearly six times greater than last year’s enrollment decrease. The drop in preschool enrollment accounted for seventeen percent of all attrition in the district—the largest decline in preschool enrollment since 2008. This dramatic change coincides with the introduction of a universal online application for Chicago public preschool programs, echoing a similar drop in preschool enrollment after a 2013 shift to a universal in-person application system.
While it would be easy to point to the new application system as the cause of CPS’s troubles, it would also be an oversimplification of the issue. In Chicago—as well as nationwide—parents and schools face a myriad of obstacles to accessing early childhood education.
Despite Mayor Emanuel making early childhood education a priority, preschool enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has steadily slumped since he took office in 2011. CPS did not respond to the Weekly’s repeated requests for comment on this story, but on the CPS budget website, the district attributes lower enrollment dates to a continuous decline in birthrate. Generally, public health data backs that decline. However, even with the birth rate taken into account, CPS’s projected 2017 preschool enrollment expected an increase of eleven students from the previous year. But this year saw an enrollment decrease of 1,882 students, nearly six times the year-to-year loss of 318 students for the 2015-2016 school year—the birth rate alone cannot explain these statistics.
The dream of universal preschool in Chicago has long suffered from a narrow definition of “universal.” One of the most important issues facing parents and the City is whether to prioritize full-day or half-day preschool programs. Since his reelection campaign, Emanuel has promoted increasing the availability of full-day programs, which have been shown to lead to better academic outcomes than half-day programs. Furthermore, half-day preschool is only 2.5 to 3 hours a day, which requires a working parent to find additional childcare in order to hold down a full-time job. Last year, the district announced that 1,000 new free full-day preschool slots will be available for low-income students in the 2017-2018 school year. In October 2016, CPS spokesperson Emily Bittner told the Sun-Times that recent shifts toward full-day programs have contributed to this year’s drop in enrollment, as the district converted multiple half-day slots into single full-day slots.
In fact, it is unclear how many of the students enrolled in CPS preschool are enrolled in full- or half-day programs, now or in the past. The district rejected a Freedom of Information Act request from the Weekly, which asked for enrollment numbers broken down by full- and half-day slots; CPS claimed that the district does not maintain such records. In the 2016-2017 CPS budget, the district states that it has increased the number of full-day classrooms from 102 in 2014-2015 to 292 this year—approximately 5840 full-day slots if each classroom has twenty students. By this rough estimate, full-day programs would account for less than a third of total preschool enrollment that year. Some of these slots are in Head Start or other programs which charge tuition on a sliding scale; some are in CPS Tuition-Based Preschool, a full-day program at less than twelve elementary schools. This self-described “[h]igh quality preschool experience” carries a price tag of $13,974 for the 2017-2018 school year; financial aid is not available. Limited free, full-time slots creates an additional barrier to preschool enrollment, which can make the present difficulties of obtaining early childhood education outweigh the long-term benefits for busy parents—especially the low-income families Mayor Emanuel has pledged to help.
The last time there was such a drastic fall in enrollment was 2013, the year Emanuel introduced the universal in-person pre-K application program. Early childhood education encompasses a dizzying array of options, including full-day, half-day, Head Start for low-income families, CPS preschool, and community preschools. The CPS application process was notoriously arduous and varied from school to school. CPS tried to simplify this process by introducing a new in-person enrollment system for the 2013-2014 school year. Parents were required to visit one of thirteen sites city-wide—schools or CPS offices—in order to register their child for preschool. The sites were initially open for registration for one month, with a traveling registration group visiting other schools for an average of three hours, frequently during the nine-to-five work day.
Under the old system, families directly communicated with each site they applied to. Under the in-person enrollment system, families ranked their top three choices from April until May, then waited until June to learn where they had been placed. After introducing this new system, CPS preschools saw a nearly one thousand student drop in enrollment.
The universal online application that debuted in March 2016 restricted families to applying to their top two choices, but included independent Head Start centers and community partners as well as CPS programs. Mayor Emanuel championed the new application as a way for CPS to prioritize the needs of low-income families; in a centralized system, each student is assigned one placement, preventing multiple seats from being offered to the same student. The online application also allows the City to prioritize enrollment for low-income families—based on provided financial information—during the rolling application period which begins in June after the initial placements have gone out to families. However the significant amount of financial information required for each member of the household makes it harder for families to submit their applications. Another barrier to entry occurs after acceptances are finalized: families are required to visit one of two CPS offices or a local library in person to verify age, location, and income within two weeks of notification of placement.
Despite the correlation between the online application’s debut and this year’s enrollment decline, some volunteers at the nonprofit Community Organizing for Family Issues (COFI) do not believe the new application system itself is the largest barrier for parents trying to enroll their students in preschool. On the contrary, a simplified application process was one of parents’ most requested changes, and was an official recommendation of the organization in a report published in 2013.
The report was compiled by Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew – Policy Action Council (POWER-PAC), a Chicago advocacy organization of low-income parents and grandparents trained by COFI. In 2007, POWER-PAC launched the Early Learning Campaign to help bring quality preschool education to low-income students of color. Their most well-known campaign—which continues to be highly successful—is the Head Start Ambassadors program, launched in 2009. Head Start Ambassadors canvass their communities, going door-to-door with information about the benefits of preschool and sharing their experiences. Ambassadors are parents and grandparents whose children have attended Head Starts in the area. Ambassadors are trained by COFI and equipped with maps of local community- and school-based centers; they are prepared to help a family identify options and fill out a paper preschool application that day. After the family fills out the application, the intake team back at COFI completes an online application with the family’s information and submits it on their behalf.
Ambassadors and intake members closely interact with parents year-to-year and are privy to common complaints and complications. Rosalva Nava has been working for the Early Learning Campaign for eight years. She joined POWER-PAC after struggling to register her children for preschool, citing difficulties in determining which programs she qualified for and a lack of spots available.
Nava sees the online application as a win for parents and COFI, who urged CPS to streamline their application system. “We have been working diligently with [the Department of Child and Family Services] and Head Start and CPS but it was very exciting to hear that they were all working on this website together all at once, that they had this one united website for CPS and independent Head Starts to work together,” she said. “That was one of the exciting parts and the accomplishments of the ambassadors and the campaign.”
However, family organization isn’t taken into consideration as a part of the new application, leading to siblings being placed at separate schools. This was simplified before the universal application, when parents could just walk in and register at their school of choice. Nowadays, Gloria Harris, another POWER-PAC organizer, says that preschool is often sacrificed in favor of an older child’s education.
“Lots of people don’t want to take their kids to different schools,” Harris explains, which is a very real possibility for parents if their preschool placement differs from the school their older child attends. Combined with the difficulty of transportation in general—working parents struggle to pick up and drop off their kids from half-day programs—Harris thinks more foresight in the process, such as tracking the age of younger siblings in the online system to alert schools when they need to reserve a spot, could ease the load on parents and make them more likely to consider preschool as an option. “That way you would know already that you have one child who need to be enrolled in that school…you would have that family information.” This would have the bonus of reminding families to enroll their children in the spring, preventing the September panic when parents realize they need to find a preschool.
For Harris, the largest issue is the lack of information parents have at their disposal. Peer-to-peer outreach programs, like the Head Start Ambassadors, are successful in low-income communities, but are difficult to scale and are dependent on funding from public and private grants. Even after talking to parents about the online application, Harris says many were still confused, as they had never heard of it before.
At this point, there is no definitive cause of this year’s preschool enrollment drop. Many factors have come to a head: working parents unable to take time off in the middle of the day to pick up their child from half-day preschool, transportation difficulties for elderly caregivers, and the constant demand for slots balanced with school resources. However, the negative correlation between new application processes and preschool enrollment cannot be ignored. And with 80 percent of CPS students being economically disadvantaged, the needs of low-income families need to be heavily weighed in any proposed change.
Mayor Emanuel’s plans to reinvigorate CPS preschools have heavily skewed towards discussions of funding, with the City borrowing nearly $17 million in social impact bonds in order to fund early childhood education. However, as in many areas of public life, pouring money into a broken system won’t fix it without a conscious plan for change. Community organizing, like COFI, is an effective hyper-local solution, but the program requires a large amount of manpower and is slow to scale. Only broad systemic change can create a healthier preschool system in Chicago. Parents and caregivers are the backbone of public education, and CPS must listen to the experiences of the low-income families it seeks to help as it designs a solution for truly “universal” preschool.
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