Each morning, Shamile Harris takes her 4-year-old daughter, Nakariel, to a home daycare center.
But Nakariel doesn't stay there. Soon after arriving, she and five other children in the sitter's care are whisked away to an accredited preschool in Austin, where they exercise, learn basics such as numbers, colors and the alphabet, and develop their social skills by interacting with other children. After a couple hours, Nakariel will return to her home-based caretaker, who will reinforce what the children have learned using techniques she has picked up from the preschool.
The program is making a difference. According to her mother, Nakariel's reading skills and social development have improved dramatically and, in just one month, she learned to count from one to 100. Every week, the preschool also sends home packets of activities for youngsters to do at home with their parents.
"My daughter has learned so much," Harris says. "She comes [home] every day with more knowledge-it just blows me away."
The partnership-a 2-year-old initiative of the nonprofit Illinois Action for Children-gives young children in family and unlicensed home-based care the opportunity to be taught by teachers certified in early learning. It also aims to ensure that children will know what to expect and will be able to perform by the time they reach kindergarten, says President and CEO Maria Whelan.
Until state officials fully implement Preschool for All, which eventually will offer free preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old in Illinois, programs like this one can bridge the gap between quality early childhood education and home-based caretakers who are unlicensed and often related to their charges.
Action for Children's program paves the way for these youngsters to attend preschool for two and a half hours every day at no additional charge to their parents, who pick up the tab for the home-based caretaker only. The nonprofit pays for transportation and preschool fees.
Caretakers also get training in early literacy techniques and working with special needs children. Certified early childhood instructors visit home-based providers weekly to work with children too young to visit the preschool.
This year, the Austin-based program is expanding to two new communities: Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
Sophia Parker used to rely on family members to care for her 4-year-old son. "I thought that wasn't good because they weren't giving him what he needed socially to develop," she says.
Now, his home-based care is supplemented by visits to It Takes a Village Preschool, where a male teacher, Nikita Walls, works with him every day.
"I've realized how much [my son] has grasped from age 3 to 5," she explains. "He really knows the fundamentals."
Catalyst Chicago is a monthly newsmagazine published by the Community Renewal Society that covers the progress, problems and politics of school reform in Chicago Public Schools. Editor Veronica Anderson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit online at www.catalyst-chicago.org.
Q. Last summer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation to expand free preschool programs previously reserved mainly for "at-risk" children. Who qualifies and how do I locate programs?
Lori Garber, parent
A. Preschool for All isn't for everyone just yet. The legislature approved $45 million this year to serve an additional 10,000 youngsters. But it will need to allocate an additional $180 million annually to serve all interested families, according to Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.
Gradual increases in funding over the next five years will open up more spaces for middle-income families and then for families in higher income brackets, Stermer explains. For now, preschool operators are giving preference to the neediest students. Chicago Public Schools gives preference to children who are the most academically at-risk, based on a mandatory screening test, but does not consider family income.
You can arrange for a screening at a nearby public school. Regional state preschool offices can help you locate CPS programs with available spaces. Call (773) 534-3846 if you live north of the Eisenhower Expressway or (773) 535-8688 if you live south. In Cook County, call Illinois Action for Children at (312) 823-1100 to find a state-funded preschool program near you.
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