Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Early Childhood

I've written in the past about PFA and the impact of Illinois's weak budget on its future. Thankfully, my children are out of the preschool age so CPS preschool options no longer concern me personally. However, I feel like CPS preschool remains one of the great unknowns (to parents) about CPS and, having spent four years as a PFA parent, the logistics of the program are interesting to me.

PFA began in 2006 with then-governor Rod Blagojevich. According to documents available at the time, PFA built on existing state PK and Head Start programs to bring "voluntary, high-quality preschool" to all preschool-aged Illinois children. At the time, it brought Illinois to the forefront of educational policy-setting. Blagojevich was really championing a cause put together into a platform in 2003 by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Action for Children, and Voices for Illinois Children.

I do not have any experience with Action for Children or Voices for Illinois Children, but I have been impressed by the work coming out of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and still remember the stats shared by Harriet Meyer during a TribNation event on Education in September 2010.

For my family, PFA has fulfilled the ideals outlined in the PFA FAQ: readiness for K, affordability, and exposure to children from different backgrounds. And so it's interesting how much the program has changed from the ideal espoused at its inception.

In January, at the PTA Advisory Council meeting, one of our speakers was Adrienne Stewart, with the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education. She shared that she's in a new position for the OECE, one of community engagement, ensuring that the PK voice is not silenced. Ms. Stewart has been a teacher, curriculum lead, and citywide manager for Head Start before landing in her current role. The OECE runs a few kinds of early childhood education programs, which are explained here on the CPS website.

Ms. Stewart explained that the Ready to Learn program is Mayor Emanuel's attempt to distribute funds from the ISBE's PFA funding to organizations and agencies outside CPS schools. Now that I'm writing it, I wonder if the RTL application should have been our first sign that CPS was going to close out more buildings that house PFA classrooms?

During her talk, I asked Ms. Stewart to explain both funding and admissions for CPS preschools, as these areas are particularly nebulous for parents. She said that PFA is a state-funded program that began with a block grant in 2003. At the time, she said, the state actually had more money than it knew what to do with and decided to invest it in opening PFA up to all students--not only those who are at-risk for disability, income, language, or other areas. PFA has/had a requirement that the program serve children of families "at-risk." Ms. Stewart said that for many communities, at-need and at-risk families overlap. Community Partnership Programs (CPP) are funded out of the PFA budget.

TBPK, she said, came out of Arne Duncan's desire to retain families within Chicago. He analyzed why families were leaving the city. And he wanted to give families who wanted to stay in Chicago and wanted preschool an option. It also had the effect of giving some families an easy entree into desirable CPS elementary schools, and introducing others into the idea that CPS could be made viable for their families, as CPSObsessed recently wrote.

Head Start is a federally funded program with age and income eligibility requirements. Similarly, Child-Parent Centers are funded from Title I, and are available to children age 3-5 years. Ms. Stewart noted that one of the initiatives that her office is considering is merging PFA and Head Start within some schools to accommodate different needs and funding sources.

In terms of admissions, Ms. Stewart clarified that there are no attendance boundaries for early childhood programs. We ran out of time before she answered when the application date closes for PFA admissions. She did say that CPS is expected to announce which programs will be certified under the RTL initiative by the end of March.

Finally, in terms of academics, she noted a plan to develop a framework for preschool curriculum across OECE locations.

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