Here are 12 things Chicago parents want to know about universal pre-K

Chicago will spend the next three years building out a “universal” preschool system. But what does that mean for families who are trying to make decisions now?

With the first round of preschool decisions coming down this week through the city’s online application and a new mayor charting the program’s future, Chalkbeat rounded up answers to common questions — including several that parents submitted to us in a survey. We based our responses on our own reporting, queries to Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago, and publicly available websites and FAQs.

Have a question that’s not on this list? Ask us:

What’s universal pre-K, and at what age will my child qualify?

Chicago seeks to create a universal pre-K system where any 4-year-old living in the city, regardless of family income, has the option to attend a high-quality full-day program for free.

But we’re not quite there yet: Chicago is rolling out its program across four years, which means some neighborhoods will have enough free seats for children in the fall and others won’t. By 2021-22, every neighborhood in the city should have enough seats for all of the children who live there — that is, if everything goes according to the city’s plan.

Chicago’s rollout targets children who turn 4 by Sept. 1 of the school year they’d start. For children under 4, that’s where it gets complicated. Three-year-olds can apply to attend some half-day programs in Chicago schools; schools may also accept 3-year-olds to fill full-day programs if not enough 4-year-olds sign up.

The city’s online application for early learning also lists programs at community child care centers and preschools, some of which take children as young as infancy. Many of these programs offer extended hours and family programming in addition to preschool curriculum. But those seats are only free for families who qualify for public assistance. Otherwise, families must pay tuition.

So when will universal pre-K come to my neighborhood?

The rollout spans three years, with neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago getting priority this fall and wealthier areas, like Lincoln Park, not seeing expansions at some schools until 2021-22. However, some schools may end up opening preschool seats earlier. The full timeline is available in a city report here.

How were priority neighborhoods chosen for the universal pre-K rollout?

According to a spokeswoman, Chicago Public Schools prioritized offering universal pre-K for the 2019-20 school year in the South and West sides that had the highest levels of need and where schools had room to open additional pre-K classrooms.

Will Chicago still offer tuition-based pre-K at some schools or will eventually all spots be free?

For the foreseeable future, Chicago will continue to offer tuition-based pre-K seats for 3- and 4-year-olds at a handful of schools. It just added a new campus, Oscar Mayer Magnet School, to the list after a critical report from the inspector general for schools found that the program’s admissions process provided what amounted to a free “perk” to families living within its attendance boundaries that other magnet programs didn’t provide.

As for the long-term prognosis,  a district spokeswoman said that universal pre-K will ultimately make those tuition-based programs less viable: “Tuition-based pre-k programs are not part of the universal pre-K initiative, but eventually, the city will have free full-day pre-K options for all 4-year-olds, which will limit demand for tuition-based programs from those families with children who will be eligible for universal pre-K.”

2019-20 tuition for remaining paid programs is $14,617. Families must pay a $700 non-refundable deposit to hold a child’s spot in the class.

Why is tuition-based pre-K so expensive?

The programs, which are completely funded by parent fees, are offered at principal discretion, the spokeswoman said, and meet specific demands of the community outside of publicly funded options. “Parent fees are used to cover the complete cost of the program, including extended hours of programming.”

I’m looking forward to enrolling my daughter, and I submitted an application through the Early Learning Portal. When will I hear back about my options?

Decisions are expected to start being announced this week. 

Do all schools use the same universal pre-K curriculum? If so, where I can find out more about what my child will learn?

Whether in schools or community centers, all publicly funded Chicago preschools have adopted Creative Curriculum, a “whole-child” centered program that relies on hands-on projects and teacher-led group activities. Developed by a Bethesda, Maryland-company, the program is widely used in Head Start programs and differs from curricula built around core academic instruction in math and reading.

The research on what pre-K curriculum works best in widespread rollouts like Chicago’s is still pretty thin. This study, from 2018, found that “whole-child” curricula had positive impacts on classroom culture but did not overall improve children’s school readiness in math and literacy.

Will my child take a nap? I heard children at some schools didn’t have a nap time this year.

According to the district, naps are not a requirement — however, both CPS and community-based programs “offer children the opportunity to have quiet time, which includes resting, if needed.”

I think my child may need additional speech services. Will every child be screened for speech or for other disabilities?

All Chicago early learning programs screen children within 45 days of enrollment for potential developmental delays and help identify children who may benefit from social and emotional support, speech assistance, or other help. Teacher observations also prompt educators to make referrals, if needed, to the office within Chicago Public Schools that oversees evaluations for children who may have special needs.

Are there any dual-language pre-K classrooms?

Yes. The district’s Office of Language and Cultural Education lists options online. Some additional screening may be required to assess eligibility for dual-language programs, according to the district.  

Which schools are still offering half-days? And are half-days only for 3-year-olds?

In 2019-20, the district will offer about 145 half-day classrooms citywide. Nearly all of these half-day classrooms will be targeted at 3-year-olds and have seats reserved for children students who qualify for special education programming. The city’s early learning website includes a function that lets families search for half-day programs at both schools and community centers.

I live in Norwood Park, and it’s not on the list for universal pre-K yet. What options are available for the 2019-20 school year?

The city’s early learning website has a search tool that families in any ZIP code in the city can use to find options at both schools and community centers. As for applications to schools outside of the 28 communities targeted for the first-round expansion in 2019-20, a district spokeswoman said admissions to those schools will be prioritized by need and availability.