The morning after making a surprise announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scheduled a public appearance at a pre-kindergarten at Brownell Elementary, a predominantly black school located just east of Englewood on the South Side.

Wednesday’s visit served as a show of support for one of his signature initiatives—universal pre-K, which is only in its first year of rollout and could be vulnerable if the city’s next mayor does not share Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

Emanuel’s plan offers 3,700 more free pre-kindergarten slots to low-income families this year at a cost of $20 million, then ramps up the number of available seats across the next three years. Ultimately, the district aims to offer free, full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city for the 2021-22 school year at an all-in cost of $175 million.

The district did not respond to requests for the number of pre-K seats it has filled. Some schools have reported that their programs are full, with families on waitlists, while other schools have reported vacant seats. Parents complained at board meetings this summer that they found the application process confusing and chaotic.

At Brownell, the full-day offering is a hit, according to pre-K teacher Jane Godina, speaking after Emanuel had come and gone.

“We were always struggling with enrollment with our half-day program, and this year we were just slammed,” said Godina, whose class consists of 20 students. “Full-day is really what this neighborhood needs.”

Parent Lovlis Jordan agrees. She has two kids enrolled in the class, and walks seven blocks from home to drop them off before heading downtown, where she works as an office-tower security guard. Full-day pre-kindergarten means she can avoid complicated childcare arrangements, and she likes the feel of Godina’s class.

“It’s hands on, and it’s small—not too chaotic,” Jordan said.  

The importance of full-day, pre-K classes doesn’t just reflect parental needs or Emanuel’s political will: A powerful contingent of civic and philanthropic leaders support the idea here, too. “Early childhood education enjoys widespread support for many leaders at the state and local level,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. “We’re confident that this will be an important issue for a new mayor.”

Now advocates are armed with some telling data. Three out of four Illinois kids are unprepared when they begin kindergarten, according to first-of-its-kind data released last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. Godina said pre-K classes help kids acclimate to routines and pick up social-emotional skills, not to mention some ABCs.

“It gets them to work on all those things so that when they’re in kindergarten, they’re far more prepared than their peers,” she said.

As for pulling the plug on the universal pre-K initiative, Brownell’s principal, Richard Morgan, said that would be a big mistake.

“Any person in their right mind, if they know what the research says and they understand what’s good for children, would never pull the mat out from under them,” said Morgan, who has led Brownell for 14 years. “Once you become full-day, people begin to knock the doors down because that’s what everybody wants.”

Last year, when only a half-day pre-K was offered, some parents skipped Brownell, which had 216 students on the 20th day of the 2017-18 school year and is considered “underutilized” by the district. This year, Morgan said of his pre-K, “everyone is trying to get in.”