‘I don’t understand how it works’: Parents voice frustration during decision week for Chicago preschool

Jennifer Kwong, a Logan Square mother, has been struggling to find information about preschool in Chicago. She brought her questions to a meet-up of parents and early childhood teachers Thursday night hosted by the city’s teachers’ union — but left with too few answers and even more questions.

“I still don’t understand the applications,” she said, her voice rising in frustration. “I don’t understand why some programs are tuition-based, and some are half-day, and some are full-day. I don’t understand how it works.”

Kwong, who has a 2½-year-old, wasn’t the only parent at the informal meet-up armed with questions and ideas for improving the city’s preschool system. A “universal” pre-kindergarten plan set in motion by the city’s former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is in year one of a four-year rollout, and much remains in flux. Several parents and teachers said they had come to the union-sponsored event to see if others shared their concerns.

Related: Here are 12 answers to common questions about Chicago pre-K 

“I’m here to advocate for our babies,” said Susie McNeal, a longtime pre-K teacher at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, describing a school day packed with too many expectations and not enough play. “If pre-K is the kindergarten, and kindergarten is the new first grade, where’s the balance for our kids? They’re still little people.”

Chicago’s teachers union is pushing for its next contract to include language specifically related to early childhood education for the first time. A spokeswoman later told Chalkbeat that a current proposal would establish a naptime in pre-K and kindergarten; protections that would keep teacher’s assistants from leaving classrooms to fill-in other vacancies; and adequate facilities and supplies for diapering and toilet training.

The union is also asking the city to do away with its online early learning application and restore a provision that would allow families to enroll for pre-K seats at neighborhood schools.

A union spokeswoman said the group declined an offer from the city to send a representative to the meeting to hear parents’ concerns but would invite them to future meetings.

A spokesman for the City of Chicago, Patrick Mullane, said that the city had established a hotline and an email address where parents could ask questions or voice comments. “To ensure all parents are supported with the information they need to navigate the city’s high-quality early learning programs, Chicago Early Learning will continue to update its website and FAQ based on the parent questions received through the hotline, email and social media accounts.”

Over the course of a 1½-hour meeting Thursday, emotions ran high as parents described frustration at the system, particularly the central application.

They voiced uncertainty about whom they should ask critical questions about such things as special education services and available seats for 3-year-olds. Since the preschool rollout applies to both public schools and community-based programs, two different city departments share oversight. And they lamented both the complex menu of options and applications — from tuition-based programs to magnet Montessoris to neighborhood pre-Ks — and reports of waitlists already in their neighborhoods.

Current teachers from both Chicago Public Schools and community-based daycares came with their own grievances. Chief among them: why the families they serve had to deal with a centralized application system in lieu of simply signing up at their neighborhood school.

Jennifer Jones, a pre-K teacher at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary who is on the union’s early childhood committee, said the multi-screen online application “implied a certain level of literacy,” and only offered a Spanish translation version, so her school had had to create a separate date for parents to come in and get help navigating the software. “They are trying to navigate a system with absolutely no instructions.”

As the sun faded outside Thursday’s meeting, the group agreed they’d meet again and invite representatives from Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago to speak.

But even that decision highlighted a quandary: Because two departments manage the system, nobody was exactly sure whom to ask.

One obvious name came up: Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot. Maybe she’d come to the next meeting? They could hope.

Speaking after the meeting, McNeal said she had a message for Lightfoot, who has pledged to continue the universal pre-K rollout but has not signaled whether she’d make changes. “I need you to not do the Rahm plan. I need you to have your own vision.”