Elgin group wants to get more kids into preschool
An Elgin group is trying to help more disadvantaged children gain access to quality early childhood education programs so they are better prepared to enter kindergarten.
Elgin has been named an Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zone -- a designation given to communities that will serve as laboratories for the state to test strategies for increasing enrollment of underserved high-needs children into high-quality early learning programs. That includes children who come from low-income families, teen parent households, are homeless or under Illinois Department of Children and Family Services supervision, and have disabilities or language barriers.
The federally funded initiative is connected to $80 million in preschool expansion grants awarded to suburban school districts in December to expand access to full-day preschool for 4-year-olds in 18 communities.
Elgin Area School District U-46 will receive about $2.4 million each of the next four years to expand access to full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. The funding will allow the district to educate 200 additional 4-year-olds yearly starting this fall.
"We try to get the kids into the spots so the most at-risk children that have the greatest need accessing full-day kindergarten programs (are served)," said Casey Amayun, collaboration director for the Elgin Partnership for Early Learning, which is leading the effort. "We know that all kids need to have some sort of early childhood experience, whether it be a preschool or library program."
The partnership comprises more than 40 agencies, including Advocate Sherman Hospital, Easter Seals of DuPage and Fox River Valley, Elgin Community College, Gail Borden Public Library, Grand Victoria Foundation, Kane County Health Department, One Hope United Elgin Child and Family Resource Center, U-46, United Way of Elgin and YWCA Elgin.
Innovation Zones work in partnership with the Illinois Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development and Illinois Action for Children.
Elgin joins Aurora and Cicero as the only suburban Innovation Zones. Each zone includes an underserved population of between 4,000 and 5,000 children.
The cities were selected based on the level of need and for having an established or emerging community collaboration among early childhood providers and local school districts and supportive community leaders.
"We have a good wealth of knowledge and a lot of great experiences," Amayun said. "It's more connecting families into the experiences in the community that already exist."
In Elgin, only one out of three children up to 5 years old has access to early childhood programming with the number of preschool and family child care spots available. Only 40 percent of children entering kindergarten meet the literacy benchmark, and nearly 53 percent of children younger than 5 are from low-income families, according to the collaborative.
"There's always a need for more programs," Amayun said. "We're not going to develop new programming, but we are going to work on innovative solutions to our current issue."
Beyond availability issues, income is among the barriers to accessing preschool programs.
"If you are looking for a full-time spot, some of them are very expensive to try to get into a program," Amayun said.
Cultural barriers also play a role, as some ethnic communities prefer having in-home child care through the help of grandparents or relatives, which though beneficial for children does not level the playing field academically, she said.
"Not everyone needs to be in a program," Amayun said. "We are hoping a solution is to get stuff into the hands of all caregivers -- curriculum, educational materials, strategies to achieve (success). We are trying to raise awareness of the importance of school readiness and work with our systems -- health, early learning, family support. The next goal is to really address the quality in the community and trying to raise the overall quality of preschool teachers, child caregivers and family child caregivers."
Elgin will receive technical help and support from the state with some potential seed money down the road and an evaluator, if it wants to test and pilot a strategy, Amayun said.
"Elgin's selection as an Innovation Zone is a great step forward for our local collaboration," said Lynne Bosley, president and CEO of United Way of Elgin, which along with U-46 and the Grand Victoria Foundation financially supports the Elgin Partnership for Early Learning.
Bosley added, the main benefit will be "learning from and sharing with other early learning collaborations around the state, which will help us expand and strengthen our local efforts."
For more information about the Innovation Zone, visit unitedwayelgin.org.