El Valor runs the second-largest network of early childhood education centers in Chicago, after the public school system itself. Until this fall, several of its centers on the city’s South and Southwest sides had long waitlists.

Then Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago would embrace universal education for 4-year-olds. As schools opened classrooms across the city and families followed, El Valor suddenly had to scramble to fill its 1,000-plus spots. Its employees staged community baby showers, taped fliers to pizza boxes, worked block parties, and fanned out door to door.

“It felt like ‘Do or die,” said Rey Gonzalez, El Valor’s CEO. “We had to meet full enrollment by Oct. 1.”

But even if El Valor does recruit more families, the successful community-based program and others like it could still face radical change.  

Emanuel’s big-budget, top-down expansion of public preschool has provoked high-anxiety among nonprofit and community-based pre-kindergarten centers that operate on precarious, narrow margins — and there appears to be no immediate relief in sight. So far, Chicago’s speedy pre-kindergarten rollout has fallen short in coordination, consultation, and communication, advocates say, and some educators worry that it could end up diminishing high-quality options for Chicago’s infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who need it the most.

“There are fundamental changes going on, from what we offer to families as a city to how parents choose where they want their education to occur, and we’ve not quite caught up with that as a system,” said Karen Berman, a member of the state’s influential Early Learning Council. She’s also Illinois policy director at the Ounce of Prevention, a Chicago-based early childhood advocacy group.

Acknowledging the hardship, the city intends to help guide nonprofit centers and community providers through a forthcoming bid for more than $220 million in federal and state dollars. The city is using the grant competition to encourage community providers to shift services away from 4-year-olds and toward infants and toddlers, instead of competing with the school district to serve preschoolers.

“Any school district that has expanded capacity for 4-year-olds sees that parents choose to go to schools,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the mayor’s early learning chief and his point person on the city’s universal pre-K effort.

She acknowledged that Chicago is experiencing growing pains similar to those of other cities who’ve rolled out universal pre-K, and believes that families will benefit if more providers refocus on an age group desperately needing quality care: infants and toddlers. “There is opportunity for growth in all parts of our system, but it’s going to take change in all parts of our system,” she said.

Currently, about 21,000 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in programs at schools and community centers, but that’s less than half of an estimated 45,000 young residents who qualify.

Building a system that works for everyone, however, is incredibly complicated. Even as Chicago schools scoop up 4-year-olds, there’s an imbalance citywide. Some neighborhoods still desperately need more preschool spaces, while others have growing vacancies, data obtained by Chalkbeat show.

In that uneven landscape, public schools generally tend to have robust enrollment. Chicago’s full-day preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity. Publicly funded nonprofit and community-run child care centers have filled only 80 percent of their spaces for 3- and 4-year olds.

Since this is the first year of a universal enrollment system, year-to-year data comparisons were not immediately available. Aigner-Treworgy of the mayor’s office said that a newer set of numbers from December — and not yet publicly available — showed enrollment in community centers “more on par” and, in some cases, increased from last year.

Universal embrace for universal pre-K

The upheaval plays out against a backdrop of broad bipartisan support for universal preschool, regarded as a great hope for public education. Research has demonstrated the benefits of quality pre-K time and time again, and there’s evidence that young children who attend well-run programs are more likely over time to stay in school, earn more money, and even be healthier.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio fast-tracked a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds in 2014 and is now rolling out something similar for 3-year-olds. Parents have reported high satisfaction with the program, and studies show academic gains.

But New York has experienced its own share of unintended consequences: As schools added seats, many community centers struggled to retain students and teachers. Some closed, leaving fewer seats for infants and toddlers than planned — a problem the city must now confront, according to a March 2018 report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

In Chicago, schools aren’t newcomers to pre-K or early childhood services. But community-based providers have long served large numbers of Chicago’s youngest children. Many successful centers built up a long menu of offerings that expanded beyond their students, incorporating parents, providing support services like job training and citizenship classes, and connecting families with counseling, housing, even doctors.  

For working parents, the centers also offer a distinct advantage from many schools: They tend to open up early, and many providers stay open until 6 p.m. or later.

Leticia Diaz, an early education specialist at the Little Village community organization Enlace, helps connect families with preschool programs. “Some of our providers really go a long way to support the families — they even help them through the application process — and I don’t know if our families are getting that same support from (Chicago Public Schools).”

So what is the problem with asking successful community programs to refocus on younger children?

In part, it involves money. For programs such as El Valor, forgoing 4-year-olds means losing critical reimbursements that help fund a popular science curriculum, smart boards, extra teachers, dual-language instruction, resume assistance and GED courses for parents, and other services.

The government reimburses the center about $147,000 annually for a classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds, but only 47 percent as much for a room of infants and toddlers — because class size is much smaller, just eight children.

“Do the math,” said Gonzalez, the executive director of El Valor. “How do we make up that differential?”

“There’s a complexity to the system,” said Julie Spielberger, a policy researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

She and others also point out that teachers in Illinois need different training and support to teach in birth-to-3 programs than they do teaching 4-year-olds.

Maricela Garcia, CEO of the 120-year-old community organization Gads Hill, said licensing restrictions complicate matters in other ways. Her group, for example, operates a small center for 3- and 4-year-olds on the second floor of a brick building adjacent to Mt. Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale. That center currently can’t accept infants or toddlers, since federal regulations prohibit publicly funded programs from putting classrooms for children aged 2 or younger anywhere but on the first floor.  

On top of the financial and logistical squeeze on preschools, operators say the city and school district have complicated the transition with haphazard and conflicting messages.

Dawnielle Jeffrey, the vice president of early childhood services at Children’s Home and Aid, said the lack of communication between the schools and the community providers impacts families.

For example, it’s still unclear how organizations should share responsibility with the school district for educating children with special needs. Legally, public schools must provide special education, even for preschool children. Jeffrey said that Children’s Home and Aid, which operates early childhood programs in the city and the suburbs, once was part of a pilot program in which the district sent special education teachers to her school.

Now, she said, Chicago has declined to continue that practice. “Our children have to enroll in their preschool school program or they do not get the services at all.”

Calls for more transparency

Providers also lament the city’s lack of transparency — chiefly where and when it plans to add pre-K classrooms — since those decisions can lead to business-threatening losses.

At a meeting of community providers and the city in December, tensions reportedly boiled over, according to several people who were in attendance. Center directors passed out business cards with the goal of convening neighborhood-level meetings to assess the supply-demand issues on their own. Some questioned city representatives about why they had not shared more data about enrollment patterns and why the school system wasn’t disclosing the timing or location of the next round of classrooms it intends to open.

Aigner-Treworgy of the mayor’s office said the city has been hosting meetings and focus groups with community providers in an effort to quell concerns and build unity. 

An expansion of this size will requires a lot of systems change from both schools and community partners,” she said, “but this investment will result in more children having more services.” 

Besides the competition for 4-year-olds, preschool operators face other pressures. Birth rates have dropped in Illinois, as they have across the country. Claire Dunham, a senior vice president at Ounce of Prevention, noted that an acute teacher shortage is hitting the state’s early childhood programs particularly hard. Black families with children are leaving the city, prompting school enrollment to drop.

The rising minimum wage has also meant some families have lost their eligibility for some publicly funded programs. That change causes constant churn in the ranks of qualified children.

“One of the big challenges you face when you’re trying to operate a center-based program is that you have a physical center in a community,” Dunham said. With out-migration and changing family income, “you have to work harder and harder to identify children who meet the eligibility criteria.”

In the background of the upheaval looms the most unpredictable element of all: change at the top of Chicago’s power structure. Of the more than a dozen mayoral candidates, 11 told Chalkbeat they’d continue with the universal pre-K initiative but did not address specifics, such as whether they’d scale back on the cost or timeline or whether they’d shake up the approach.

In the meantime, Chicago families are starting to hunt for programs where they can enroll their children for fall. Two years ago the city launched an online preschool application to help those searches, complete with a directory of school and community providers and a staffed helpline for questions.

The site is supposed to start taking applications beginning in April. But as of early February, it was still advertising seats for last year.