Chicago schools’ preschool chief steps down

Four months after Chicago’s early learning chief stepped down, another top administrator is leaving, amid the city’s critical rollout of universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

Michael Abello, the chief of early childhood education for Chicago Public Schools, is leaving this week for a new role outside of Illinois that will have a national focus, the school district confirmed to Chalkbeat. 

The second-in-command of the department, Leslie McKinily, will oversee efforts to expand pre-K while Chicago Public Schools searches for a replacement. 

The department chief heads a team of about 50 and serves as a liaison between the school system and City Hall. The school district and the city’s Department of Family and Support Services split early learning governance and the state and federal funds that largely undergird programs. 

Chicago is in the second year of an ambitious effort to extend free pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, initiated by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he was leaving office. At the same time, the city has redistributed funding among child care and preschools, pulling some funding from longstanding community-based preschool and child care programs.

Under the city’s plan, Chicago Public Schools is supposed to offer preschool for most 4-year-olds by 2021. Community providers, nonprofits, and small businesses — all overseen by the city — would run day care and preschool for children ages 3 and under.

But the city’s expansion into preschool has been messy on the ground, with parents expressing confusion about their options, community providers clinging to 4-year-old programs, and some public schools still offering half-day options for 3-year-olds — something the district has said it will all but phase out. 

Thousands of families are also still enrolling their 4-year-olds in community programs, which typically offer extended hours that are more convenient for working families. Many non-profits that have been running programs for decades also offer established programs that are a draw, such as English classes, citizenship support, and job training. 

Chicago Public Schools is rolling out its universal pre-K program in waves, targeting neighborhoods with the highest need first, it has said. This fall, new classrooms opened in Austin, Avondale, Logan Square, and South Lawndale, among other neighborhoods. In all, the district enrolled 1,421 more 4-year-olds to total 14,300, offsetting a similar-sized drop in the number of 3-year-olds. 

You can find the district’s pre-K “roadmap” here. 

Chicago parents have expressed confusion and consternation about applying to preschool, since early learning applications are split between two portals: the city’s early learning portal and GoCPS, which is run by Chicago Public Schools. The school district also still oversees several tuition-based programs at popular North Side schools, which it may begin to phase out as more universal pre-K classrooms come online. (Find some answers to common questions here.)

The district also operates four highly competitive magnet preschools that are free but accept families by lottery. Applications are due Dec. 13 through the school district’s GoCPS online portal for Suder, Inter-American, Mayer, and Drummond, all on the North Side.

Abello, a Teach for America alum who was formerly a principal at Piccolo Elementary on the city’s South Side, was promoted to run Chicago Public Schools’ early learning department in 2018. 

Chicago Public Schools also announced last week it has hired a new chief portfolio officer to oversee enrollment and openings and closings. Prior to joining Chicago schools, Bing Howell managed school improvement efforts in both the Tennessee and New Jersey Departments of Education. Howell also served as chief external affairs officer for the Washington State Charter Schools Association and for Citizen Schools, where he focused on policy, advocacy, and community engagement efforts.