Blog: The Educated Reporter

At Chicago Preschool, Parental Involvement Is Key

A preschooler and his teacher at the Educare Center in Chicago. (Photo credit: The Ounce of Prevention Fund)

With engaged parents, bright futures are possible. That’s the philosophy of a child care center on Chicago’s South Side that is pairing research-based child development techniques with a strong family partnership.

The Educare Center grew from a program that had been based at the notorious Robert Taylor Homes. Educare opened their own facility in 2000 as the public housing high-rises across the street were being dismantled.

Educare not only requires parents to be highly involved in their children’s learning but also provides them with assistance from social workers and connections to other services.

“They know they’re important here,” said Portia Kennel, the executive director of the Educare Learning Network. The center includes a library and banks of computers for families, some of whom created an alumni association.

Parents can also get help navigating the complex Chicago Public Schools open-enrollment process to find a good school for kindergarten and beyond. Parents, who often stay in touch with Educare, report having the confidence to advocate on their child’s behalf during their school years, Kennel said.

Educare serves 149 infants through prekindergartners year-round and offers free meals and snacks. It was created by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, and is located on Chicago Public Schools land. Daily operations are funded by local, state and federal dollars as well as philanthropic donations. The center has spawned affiliated branches in more than a dozen states around the country.

“It’s not about replicating this program, but creating other strong programs with a culture of learning and community connection,” said Diana Rauner, the president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Her husband is Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Key to the approach at the Chicago center is a focus on continuity — each child stays with the same teacher for three years in a row, an approach that is intended to help develop secure relationships. Each classroom has three teachers.

On a recent morning, toddlers cut carrots with plastic knives, toddlers zoomed around on tricycles in an indoor gym and infants were cradled by caretakers. In a classroom for two-year-olds, six children played in a room stocked with African-American dolls and a play kitchen.

Research by the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina has found that children who attend Educare come out with vocabularies and levels of school readiness near the national mean. That is significant because the children who attend are among the most at-risk children who apply for prekindergarten. Many Educare children have experienced stresses such as homelessness, foster care, single-parent households and poverty.

Educare also regularly holds training for area child-care providers in an effort to help spread its successful techniques throughout the community.

“Think of this as a laboratory for effective practice,” Diana Rauner said.