‘Hoping for a miracle’: Chicago parents express confusion, anxiety as preschools and day care centers lay off staff, threaten downsizing

With her 3- and 4-year-old children quietly squirming beside her, Jessica Garcia sat for two hours Tuesday waiting for answers to why her Catholic preschool center will close next week. 

Instead of clarity, she left a meeting Tuesday night with more questions. The town hall meeting has been billed as an opportunity for parents and preschool providers to ask questions about vast changes to the city’s early education system. But senior leaders from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, who meeting organizers indicated would attend, did not appear. 

At times, frustrated parents and providers lobbed questions at an empty table intended for city officials to answer questions. 

Garcia sat quietly toward the back of the meeting. 

“My kid was doing well in school — he wasn’t crying when I dropped him off, he was learning — and now we have to go to another school? Why do I have to do it again?” Garcia asked, before bundling up her children up and heading off unsatisfied into the night. 

St. Joseph’s Day Care, where Garcia sends two of her four children, will close next week as part of a trifecta of closings by Catholic Charities. Those closings are not tied to the city redistributing grants for early education, according to a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities; instead, chronic state funding gaps and a drop in private money that helped subsidize operations prompted the closings. 

But the questions raised, and fears and doubt sowed at Tuesday’s meeting underscored how parents feel underrepresented and unheard as sweeping changes in early education unspool at both the city and state level. 

Chicago’s decision to expand universal preschool to all 4-year-olds and overhaul its early education system has upended the system. In awarding grants last summer, Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services redistributed $200 million in early learning funding to several new providers and cutting funding requests from longtime centers.

Since hearing complaints that some centers that lost funding will cut classrooms or staff, the city has scrambled to extend current funding. A spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that a second funding extension will infuse $5 million more into the program and offer providers 80% of their previous funding, through June 2020.

The state, meanwhile, has struggled to raise reimbursement rates that hover about $24 to $32 per child per day, depending on the program and its location. The state has cut back expansion plans for budgetary reasons.

But the need remains great. A recent report showed that only 1 in 4 Illinois children under age 5 is enrolled in any sort of state-subsidized early education program.  

Tuesday’s town hall focused mainly on the city. Providers raised concerns about how the grant competition was structured, how applications were scored, and why new applicants without state ratings landed grants. Speakers repeatedly asked about the impact of a universal pre-K expansion in Chicago Public Schools and whether that was gobbling up resources. They also warned that being forced to close classrooms, trim staff, and cut critical features such as a parent voice committee will hurt their parents and families. 

Christina Njoloma, a parent and teacher at Little Angels in Englewood, which is one of the centers that saw cuts, said beyond care for her own child, she is worried about her job and the impact on the families she has come to know at the center. 

“It’s unfair,” she said. “It’s not just children. All these teachers — where do they go?”

Tuesday’s town hall at Antioch Baptist Church was organized by a new advocacy group called the Campaign for Equitable Early Education Funding. 

Members of the group pressed the elected officials who were in attendance, among them Alderman Roderick Sawyer and State Senator Aaron Ortiz, about why the floundering early education system isn’t getting prioritized at either the city or state level.

Sawyer, who co-sponsored a City Council resolution that warned of the impact of cuts to neighborhoods such as Englewood, Austin, and Back of the Yards, said he was still working with Alderman Michael Scott, who co-chairs the city’s education committee, to organize a hearing about the grant recompetition. Other concerns, such as city budget hearings, had pushed hearings back.

“We were able to secure funding for the rest of the year,” he said, nodding to the extensions. “It’s something — but it’s not enough.”

Providers pressed Sawyer for more. “A budget cut by 20% still means layoffs at our place,” one woman said. 

Parent Sandy Barrera said after the meeting that she was searching for a spot for her 4-year-old who will be displaced by the closing of St. Joseph’s. Asked if she would consider Chicago Public Schools’ universal pre-K, she demurred. “It’s because of the strike,” she said. “The strike showed how schools are understaffed.”

Asked what she plans to do with her child starting December, she’s not sure. “I’m hoping for a miracle to happen.”