What began about six years ago as an idea to give low-income children in West Chicago more than just a head start before kindergarten has become a reality for 150 infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families.
Educare of West DuPage, a state-of-the-art preschool, recently opened across the park from West Chicago Elementary District 33's Pioneer Elementary School, which has the highest percentage of low-income students of any elementary school in DuPage County.
On Friday, state and local officials celebrated the opening of the $10 million facility that serves children ages 5 and younger who are at risk of falling behind when they reach kindergarten.
"We have taken a bold step here and in many other places across the country, where we're trying to create an opportunity and level the playing the field for children in this country most at risk of school failure," said Portia Kennel, executive director of Educare Learning Network.
The Educare model is a full-day, year-round program with classes taught by teachers with bachelor's degrees.
"We've created a platform to make a difference," Kennel said, "and to set them (children) on a different trajectory in life where they can be successful in school and be productive members of this country and go after their own dreams."
Educare of West DuPage is the first suburban school in Educare's nationwide network. It was funded by public and private donors in an innovative partnership.
Most of the construction cost was paid with private money provided by the Gustafson Family Charitable Foundation, the Pritzker Children's Initiative and a list of other donors. The state also provided some funding.
Educare is operating the school. District 33 paid for the land and improvements and will provide ongoing building maintenance.
In addition to classrooms, the 24,000-square-foot building has a training center for early childhood teachers, a library and resource center for parents, and a meeting space.
"We really feel we've done a great job of creating a building that fits in its environment," said Theresa Hawley, founding chairwoman of the Educare of West DuPage's board of directors. She said the project was first conceived in fall 2006.
Karen Carradine, executive director of Educare of West DuPage, said the response to the school has been "phenomenal" because of a lack of local centers offering programs for children who are 3 and younger. The school already has reached full enrollment.
As for the benefits of the program, officials say an independent evaluation found children who enroll in Educare up to age 2 enter kindergarten with the same school readiness skills as their middle-income peers.
Those children also have "strong language, math and social-emotional skills," according to Educare.
Because the school serves a predominately Mexican-American population, Carradine said it has adopted a dual-language approach to instruction.
"What research tells us is a child needs to be introduced to new concepts at this early age in their primary language so they can make connections," Carradine said, "and then you can supplement with a second language. But you want that main thrust of instruction and inquiry happening in their primary language."
The Educare program also is helpful for teen mothers who are trying to raise children while continuing their education, according to Madie Ohl, a family support specialist.
"By having their children here, it takes the issue of child care out of the equation so they can go to school," Ohl said.