Chicago promised her a new preschool building — then cut funding for the children

For 15 years, Nashone Greer-Adams has run a thriving preschool and infant center in the fellowship hall of an Englewood church. But in recent weeks, the city has targeted her business, Little Angels, for deep cuts.

It is among several community child care centers suddenly and inexplicably losing funding, despite a pledge by two successive Chicago mayors to invest more in early learning.  

Greer-Adams said she was devastated to receive a letter earlier this month from Chicago Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison-Butler that the city would cut off her funding, worth about 35% of her annual budget. The letter said the city would help her families find other centers for their child care. 

The cut is particularly odd and surprising given that a year ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson crowded into Greer’s school to announce that the city would transform a nearby vacant lot into a $3.4 million new early learning center. The plan was part of a four-year effort to expand access to universal pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city by 2021.

“You used us as your poster child,” Greer-Adams said on Monday, sitting in front of a stack of signs she plans to use for a visit to City Hall later this week. “And you do this to your poster child?” 

The 42 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in her program face an uncertain few months, as her current contract ends Nov. 30. Scores of other children who currently are in the care of other Chicago community agencies also facing cuts, also could lose their day care. 

According to a letter sent Monday to the Department of Family and Support Services from Dana Garner, the director of the Chicago Commission of Site Administered Child Care Programs, at least 30 early learning centers that serve more than 1,000 children across Chicago face deep cuts, according to a survey from her commission.

Cuts appeared to be concentrated in Englewood, Austin, and Back of the Yards, she said, and agencies reported losing seats for infants and toddlers as well as older children. 

“How did this happen?” Garner asked on Monday. “There wasn’t any clear definition as to why this happened.” 

As for who gained or lost seats, that’s not yet clear. NBC-5 reported Monday that the Archdiocese of Chicago, which operates several preschool sites, could lose some funding. The city’s Department of Family and Support Services told Chalkbeat that 101 early learning sites were funded through a combination of two back-to-back grant competitions. The department could not immediately provide Chalkbeat with a list of sites that were funded or cut. 

In e-mail responses to questions from Chalkbeat, Morrison-Butler acknowledged that some communities lost funding in the grant competition, but others saw an increase. 

“The movement up and down is due to many factors, including who was funded, where they wanted to serve, as well as who was not funded and how the loss of that agency impacted the community,” she wrote. “The reasons that organizations were unsuccessful are as unique as the organizations that applied.” 

The determinations are not yet final, either. “Once the [Chicago Public Schools] final enrollment picture is clear, we will be able to see where true gaps exist.  We will then work with our delegate agencies and with our partners [at Chicago Public Schools] to develop a strategy for addressing those gaps.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office directed queries back to the family services department. 

$42 million more for early learning

Last spring, Chicago’s then-early learning chief said that the city planned to invest an additional $42 million into community-based care to help offset the loss of children as the city added preschool seats in its schools. The money was intended to help centers raise salaries to a $47,000 minimum across five years, invest in upgrades, and expand the number of seats for infants and toddlers, as more 4-year-olds headed off to preschool in area schools. 

Both the Emanuel administration and Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised that Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion would not undercut community programs, which offer infant and toddler care in addition to preschool courses, often open early and offer later pickup than schools, and also provide critical wraparound classes and training for parents, many of whom are low-income.  

The city was on track to launch its grant recompetition — which happens every few years —  before Emanuel left office, part of a larger $200 million investment in universal pre-K that will guarantee every 4-year-old in Chicago a full-day education by 2021. 

Then Lightfoot took office and the city’s early learning chief departed. Now, with the latest results of grant awards delivered in the past few weeks, several nonprofit groups have found themselves facing cuts. 

Scott Perkins, an early childhood advocate familiar with the grant program, said that Lightfoot inherited a complex rollout.

“We all support the vision” of universal pre-K, he said. But by relying on a grant program to map out how and where to offer services, the city oversimplified a complicated task. “There were blind spots.”

“The slot allocations that were awarded to (community providers) through the (grant) has left most agencies in a state of crisis,” Garner wrote to the mayor on Monday, “and with no other option than to close centers and classrooms in high-need community areas, such as Englewood and Austin, within the next two weeks.”

While some caregivers received funding, she wrote, cutting off grants to others “would not only impact the city of Chicago financially, but more importantly, it will result in the lack of access for children and families to a 10-hour full day of high-quality, comprehensive early learning opportunities in the highest-need communities that are already in crisis.”

Back in Englewood

Asked how her department determined which programs were funded and which were cut, Morrison-Butler said in her e-mail to Chalkbeat that the family services department prioritized best practices in early learning, including kindergarten readiness, curriculum, teacher salary increases, and programs that blended federal and state funding. 

“Proposals were reviewed with these criteria for quality, and with consideration of maintaining a broad community footprint, maximizing funding streams and child eligibility, program options, density-capacity, improved quality standards as well as embracing policy goals.”

As for Greer-Adams, she wants specific answers for why Little Angels lost funding. Particularly bizarre to her: That the city’s communications team invited her to attend a recent announcement that Lightfoot planned to invest $820 million more in school facility upgrades, including more than $100 million in early learning sites like hers. 

“When we first got the notice that we were defunded, I thought it was an error,” she said. So she called the city and even met with Deputy Mayor Sybil Madison. She has other meetings lined up this week. 

She’s armed with data: Her center has been certified gold by ExceleRate Illinois — the early learning rating program’s highest rating — for five consecutive years, and her record of student retention rate tops 95%. The official document that the school board must approve to fund construction of her future school described the facility as “an integral part of the city’s and CPS’ universal full day pre-school” programs.

Greer-Adams doesn’t know what will happen to her future 11,000-square foot center, which was intended to have a community space, too. The renderings for the yellow multi-tiered building with observation portals for parents wouldn’t look out of place in an architectural magazine. She could more than double her capacity, to more than 100 children. 

“I don’t know if they have full working knowledge of everything we do here,” she said, describing a parent volunteer program that provides small stipends that help low-income families get on their feet, a family advocacy group that traveled to Springfield to argue for early learning funding during state budget cuts in 2015, a mental health counselor, and 14 full-time employees cultivated from among her parents. 

“Why are we going to build a new school without the children for it?” she asked. “If we are looked at as a high-quality program — how are you going to take that away?”