A 3-year-old growing up in a household where English isn't spoken regularly, with limited access to books and educational experiences, or with development delays isn't likely to thrive in a school environment two years later when it's time to start kindergarten.
The high cost of private preschool means many of these children risk losing a unique opportunity in life when studies show their brains are especially adapted to absorbing and retaining information.
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But the growing -- though still far from universal -- access to publicly funded early learning programs is helping such children make the most of their traditional years of schooling by getting them better caught up during their preschool years.
A wave of new early learning centers in suburban school districts stands as local evidence for experts' and advocates' claims that Illinois is a national leader in the field of early childhood education.
"If you look at where you can be best invested to make a difference, preschool is one of the best investments you can make," said Larry Joseph, research director for Voices for Illinois Children. "We want preschool to be available to all who want it. We're still not there. We're still far from the goal of preschool for all."
Reasons for the goal are many: the research of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute and Nobel-prize winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman, a proliferation of private and public advocacy agencies, and the application of new know-how by the State Board of Education and local school districts.
If all this isn't surprising enough to residents weary of hearing how poorly Illinois fares in numerous other areas, there's the unusual bipartisan support early childhood education gets from legislators. Early childhood education may also be a rare area of common ground in this year's gubernatorial race.
Gov. Pat Quinn established the Governor's Office for Early Childhood Development in 2009, while the wife of Republican challenger Bruce Rauner -- Diana Mendley Rauner -- is president of the advocacy agency Ounce of Prevention Fund.
"We know so much more than we did 20 or 30 years ago," Mendley Rauner said. "I think Illinois has played a major role and the University of Chicago has provided some of the best thinking and research. We are, without question, a leader and have inspired many other states."
The key finding driving the push for early education programs has been how adaptable to learning the human brain is in the years just after birth -- years largely neglected in previous generations when school traditionally began with kindergarten or first grade.
Early = effective
Advocacy groups like the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Voices for Illinois Children focus on how these preschool years are even more important for children in households where poverty, lack of language skills, abuse, or other special needs are present.
Joseph said it was Heckman's research at the University of Chicago which concluded that for every dollar spent on early childhood education, $7 is saved on later societal costs such as remedial programs, unemployment benefits and even incarceration.
While the state has been a supporter of this philosophy, the recession and budget crisis caused a significant dip in its funding of early education.
Around 2009, state support of early education was at its peak, providing $380 million. Program enrollment also peaked that year at about 95,000 students. But subsequent spending cuts have brought state funding down to $300 million, with enrollment falling to 70,000.
The state is now trying to climb back to $325 million, Joseph said.
Mendley Rauner said the cost-effectiveness of early childhood education has been proved so conclusively that the only way to look at the cuts is as a mistake. But she refuses to put all the blame on government officials. If the general public were more aware of the value of early learning, it would be an easier task for legislators to do the right thing, she said.
Terri Cronin, the retiring principal of Community Unit District 300's deLacey Family Education Center in Carpentersville, compares the new way of thinking about early education to present-day thinking about orthodontics.
"We used to wait until kids' teeth were already crooked before we corrected them," Cronin said. "Now teeth are guided into the right position."
Having spent her whole career in early learning -- helping to make District 300 a pioneer in the field -- Cronin is pleased by the widespread acceptance it's now receiving.
"Being in it so long, (the benefit) seems so obvious to me," Cronin said.
Last month, Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 began a $19.5 million project that includes renovating and expanding its Rauch Center for Instruction and Technology into a centralized Early Childhood Center. The new facility will eliminate waiting lists for programs serving special-needs and at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, students currently scattered among nine neighborhood schools.
District 54's Early Childhood Director Sue Mayernick said the programs serve combined classes of special-needs and at-risk students, as well as instruction for preschool kids with autism.
The new center opening in August will bring all the district's specialists together in one building designed along the guidelines of the latest findings by early childhood researchers.
Barrington Unit District 220 and Des Plaines Elementary District 62 have had their early learning centers open for just a few years, having also relocated existing programs from retrofitted schools.
Barbara Romano, principal of District 220's Early Learning Center, said the efficiency and educational benefits of the new building have been innumerable.
A preponderance of windows bathe classrooms and extra-wide corridors in natural light, which researchers determined to be vital to young learners. Child-sized sinks, drinking fountains and other facilities make the building a vast improvement from Woodland School in Carpentersville -- a converted, former middle school where the program was previously housed, Romano said.
Palatine Township Elementary District 15's John G. Conyers Early Learning Center was adapted from the former Sacred Heart of Mary High School for girls in 2003, Principal Peg Lasiewicki said. Being a high school, the corridors were already as wide as recommended for an early learning center once the lockers were removed. All counters and other amenities were lowered for young children to use. And as per school code, only the first floor is used for preschool.
While other districts have embarked on building projects more recently, District 15 set out 11 years ago to ensure children most needing preschool could be educated within the district, Lasiewicki said.
In Elgin Area School District U-46, there's been a dilemma over whether to place early learners in a centralized location or multiple neighborhood schools, Director of Early Learner Initiatives Julie Kallenbach said. The district has favored the latter approach so far, especially after fluctuating state funding has led to questions about how many kids can be served, Kallenbach said.
When the state reduced funding, U-46 had to cut classroom space for 160 students, she said.
The Governor's Office for Early Childhood Development serves as a coordinator for the various research and funding sources, Executive Director Theresa Hawley said.
Hawley said her office is working to build on the bipartisan support for early learning to make sure all parties are moving forward together.
"We want to make sure kids and families succeed," she said.