It’s 85 degrees on a recent morning on Chicago’s West Side. Gabriela Tenorio and her team of parent ambassadors gather on the corner of Madison and Central Park in the Garfield Park neighborhood with a mission: They’re looking for 3- and 4-year-olds to recruit for preschool.
The moms are doing street outreach on behalf of the parent advocacy group COFI, or Community Organizing and Family Issues. Armed with pamphlets and clipboards, they plan to knock on every door in sight to spread the word about universal preschool at Chicago Public Schools.
In 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to move to universal full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. At that point, Chicago’s free preschool was only available to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. Emanuel said the program would prioritize communities with the most children in need — preschool is considered the best investment in education and an essential building block, especially for low-income children. He also said it would help boost enrollment district-wide, which had been bleeding for years. That decline has accelerated during the pandemic, especially in preschool.
The program launched in 2018, with new communities added each year. Four years later, full-day preschool for 4-year-olds is now available in 64 of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Despite some pandemic delays, there are significantly more seats for 4-year-olds in nearly every area of the city, and more than two times as many children are taking advantage of the program overall. Last school year, 10,300 CPS 4-year-olds enrolled in full-day pre-K, up from 4,900 students in 2018.
But CPS also has struggled to fill all the classrooms it has invested precious dollars to open in areas with the greatest academic and social needs. CPS enrollment took a major hit during the 2020-21 pandemic school year, with preschool hardest hit, and has yet to fully recover. With less than a week before classes begin, 4,200 seats for 4-year-olds remain unfilled.
A WBEZ analysis of preschool data shows that most of the schools unable to fill 4-year-old seats are in schools serving overwhelming numbers of low-income students, with large majorities of either Black or Latino children. And one of the city’s neediest areas, the West Side, has not benefited from preschool expansion. It already had far more preschool seats than any other area of the city in 2018, around 3,000, and has only slightly more now. However, enrollment has only dropped, from 59% to 51% of seats filled.
Meanwhile, enrollment is much higher — in the mid-70% range — in Chicago’s North Side areas, where more affluent families live, and also in some predominantly Latino areas across the city. Three parts of town – the Far North Side, the Northwest Side and the North Side – each had fewer than 400 full-day seats four years ago and now have at least five times that number. The Northwest Side now has nearly 1,700 seats, up from 120 seats.
WBEZ’s analysis also showed that enrollment rates didn’t change in any meaningful way between 2018 and 2022 during the move to universal preschool, which coincided with the pandemic. In fact, the rate in some of the city’s lowest income areas, including the West Side and the Far Southeast Side, stayed the same, or even dropped, staying below 60%. At the same time, CPS cut way back on half-day classes for 3-year-olds to make room for 4-year-old full-day programs, limiting access for that age group.
This stagnation raises questions about whether universal preschool for four-year-olds is an effective strategy for helping communities with the greatest need and whether targeting the neediest areas with programs for both 3- and 4-year-olds could end up enrolling more children.
In a statement, CPS said it “has committed to ensuring that every four-year-old in the city has the opportunity to attend pre-school to gain valuable academic and social-emotional skills and experiences.” The district added that it’s been working to “mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 that impacted enrollment at CPS and school districts across the nation.”
Preschool enrollment dropped dramatically during the pandemic, by 34% in the 2020-21 school year, with enrollment dropping by 44% for Black families in particular.
The district said it strategically puts more resources in the city’s highest-needs areas, and it started its rollout of preschool “in the highest-need communities, so the approach of phased expansion means that the lowest-need communities are the last to expand and, therefore, showed the greatest growth in enrollment in the last few years.”
To counter enrollment loss and market preschools, the school district said it’s in the first phase of a two-phase campaign. It is placing CTA ads, billboards, digital and TV ads and provides targeted support to schools in 26 communities with low enrollment. It also promotes enrollment with other city agencies, aldermen and held 10 back-to-school events. In addition, CPS hired staff and gave families access to tablets for the online application process and has partnered with groups, such as COFI, to do door-to-door outreach. It said it is working in 11 South and West side communities.
Tenorio, who oversees the early learning ambassador program at COFI, knows the enrollment struggles well.
She says some families don’t sign up because they simply don’t know how to navigate the system — or they think their kids are too young for school. Others prefer to keep their kids at home for safety reasons. But she says these issues are not insurmountable. She said her group works closely with the city to identify and target the areas with the lowest enrollment. They’ve narrowed it to five West and South side neighborhoods: Austin, Englewood, West Englewood, North Lawndale and South Chicago.
This summer, the parent ambassadors at COFI have knocked on about 31,000 doors in an effort to recruit preschoolers in areas with low enrollment.
It’s tough work. The outreach workers spend up to five hours each day in the sun, often climbing steep porches and facing close encounters with guard dogs in the neighborhoods.
On a good day, they’ll meet dozens of parents, but only a fraction of them have kids who are eligible for preschool. On a bad day, they may strike out completely. One man who answers the door says the 3-year-old who lives at home “ain’t old enough” for school yet. But the team leaves fliers and keeps moving.
Maria Sanchez, 84, has been volunteering with COFI since the organization launched in 1995. She says she enjoys chatting with residents and exploring the city’s neighborhoods. And she can speak to parents with authority. After all, she raised eight kids, 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandkids.
Sanchez only speaks Spanish and turns to her fellow parent ambassadors — including her daughter, Monica Alba — to help translate when necessary. They look out for each other.
“Our team has always gotten along so well. We never fight, we’ve never argued. We’re always on the same page,” she said. “Because we love what we do.”
The team often splits into smaller groups to cover more ground. On a recent Wednesday, three parent ambassadors walk into Ericson Elementary school in Garfield Park to learn about its preschool program. Ericson’s students are 99% black and 88% low-income. Last year, the school filled not quite half its seats — 29 out of 60.
The school had excellent enrollment between 2018 and 2020, before the pandemic, with as many as 95% of its 80 seats filled. Then, during the first full school year of the pandemic, Ericson saw a huge enrollment drop common among many preschools, especially in Black communities. Just 17 students enrolled. The school hasn’t fully recovered, but things seem to be looking up.
The group meets an administrator named Michelle Banks who tells them to send kids her way. She says many parents have been coming by the school in recent weeks with questions about the online enrollment process. Some families don’t have internet access at home and need extra support.
“We do have some seats open,” Banks says. “If you see some people, tell them to come on in.”
The ambassadors take fliers from Ericson and promise to spread the word.
Chicago kids can attend nearly all preschools that have space, though priority is based on need, home address and siblings. But Tenorio says some parents hesitate to send their kids to neighborhood schools because they’re concerned about violence. They often wait until the last minute to see if they can get into a better school, she said.
Enrollment wins and losses
With universal preschool, Chicago Public Schools is trying to fundamentally change
schooling in Chicago by lowering the age of entry from age 5 to 4. Officials hope this could engage more families, better prepare kids for kindergarten and, crucially, help rebuild a district desperate for new families.
Over the past decade, CPS has lost nearly 74,000 students, with more losses expected this fall. Enrollment loss is driven by the pandemic, as well as declining birth rates, outmigration of Black families and slowing growth of Latinx families, according to a recent report.
The number of full-day slots CPS opened in each geographic area largely reflects the number of kindergartners enrolled in those areas, though each area has fewer pre-K seats, WBEZ’s analysis shows. For example, the South Side has 1,910 kindergartners and 1,680 full-day pre-K slots. In all areas, there are fewer preschoolers than kindergartners. But the preschool dropoff is most steep in the areas serving the most disadvantaged students.
Consider Haugan Elementary in Albany Park on the Far North Side, that’s 83% Latino and 74% low-income. Last year, the school had 140 preschool seats. Only 66% were filled, with enrollment for its smaller 3-year-old program slightly better than for 4-year-olds.
The hulking red brick school hosted summer programs to help recruit students and ease them into preschool. Teachers found that children are coming in with separation issues and have trouble connecting with their peers.
“I want parents to understand that when their students are here in school, they’re in a safe environment,” said Melissa Sanchez, Haugan’s assistant principal.
Despite relatively low enrollment last year, Sanchez said the school had no problem filling preschool seats this year and that families came in “droves.” Officials hosted events like movie nights, ice cream socials and parent workshops over the summer to connect with community members and boost enrollment.
Across the city, plans to open and shutter classrooms this year reflect where the district expects to see enrollment grow — as well as decline.
CPS is opening two new early learning centers, in Lincoln Park and Jefferson Park, on the North and Far North sides, as it nears the end of its move to universal preschool and to accommodate demand. Of the seven new schools adding 20 classrooms this year, nearly all are in North Side communities, with lower than average numbers of low-income students and Black or Latino students. That includes a school in Roscoe Village adding five new classrooms and another in Lincoln Park adding four.
CPS noted that the North Side communities are in the final phase of the city’s rollout of universal preschool and that historically, the North Side has had fewer preschool seats as earlier funding had been prioritized for under-resourced community areas. CPS plans to be in all 77 Chicago community areas by next fall.
To address declining enrollment, CPS is closing 47 classrooms in 46 schools, most of which serve large numbers of low-income and students of color in communities such as Garfield Park, Gage Park and Belmont-Cragin. The district stressed that each school will still have at least one pre-K class and can open a second if demand surges.
Dewey Elementary in the Back of the Yards neighborhood is one of the schools losing a classroom. Dewey only filled 25 of its 80 preschool slots last year, or 31%.
Preschool teacher Iesha Curtis said the district could do a better job of communicating with parents and spreading the word.
“With pre-K families, a lot of them are just new to parenting so they really just don’t know what to do. Or maybe they wait until the last minute to enroll,” Curtis said.
Some families enroll their kids, but then fall behind on attendance. Curtis cites COVID-19 anxiety and says many parents prefer to keep their youngest kids at home with grandparents or other family members. Others struggle with childcare and can’t afford to lose work hours if their child gets sick at school.
“I don’t think [CPS] has a solid plan. They don’t communicate enough with the parents ahead of time,” Curtis said. “The district itself, in my opinion, is causing anxiety and therefore that’s why these parents are staying home and keeping the young children home.”
Meeting family needs
New research from the University of Chicago shows that full-day preschool is linked to higher student attendance. But that’s not the only benefit — experts, including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, say early childhood education can help strengthen families and even break the cycle of poverty long term.
And it’s best to reach kids as early as possible, from birth to preschool, while their brains are still developing.
“It’s not just about the kids, it’s about their parents too,” said Samantha Melvin, assistant research professor at Erikson Institute, a graduate program focused on early childhood education. “When kids are in early childhood education programs that really meet their needs, [parents] are able to work, they’re able to go to school, they’re able to provide for their families.”
While all children deserve to have high-quality early learning opportunities, Melvin said schools should prioritize the needs of the families who have historically had the least access to those kinds of opportunities. And that takes targeted, intentional work. In order to boost enrollment, schools should provide culturally sensitive care so that children and parents “feel seen.”
“Number one is making sure that they trust the program, they feel confident that their kid will be able to be safe and thrive in that kind of a setting … being able to maintain their home language and transfer their home culture,” she said.
But some parents may opt for private daycare centers and home-based programs, which tend to have more flexible hours.
“You can knock on as many doors as you want. And you can do as much outreach as you want,” Melvin said. “But unless the parents are going to have a place to leave their child while they’re working, they may not be able to take advantage of that opportunity.”
DeCarla Burton, owner of Jump Start Learning Academy on the Northwest Side, says her business caters to families who prefer a more intimate learning environment. But with universal pre-K rolling out this fall, many home-based providers are struggling to stay afloat. Many of her colleagues are losing 4-year-olds to CPS.
“The problem now becomes that we are forced to care for younger children,” Burton said.
Steven Coles, the owner of Lil’ Scholars Learning Center on the West Side, says he’s losing at least three kids to CPS this fall. He’s decided to pivot his business model, with plans to open a new facility that caters to 0- to 2-year-olds.
“My hope is those infants will become toddlers and will transition into toddler class,” he said. “You know to balance what we’re losing to universal pre-K. It’s a gamble. I’ve spent a lot of money getting this place ready. But I have confidence in my parents.”
Coles said the recent wave of coronavirus infections has been a “blessing” because he’s able to attract parents who prefer smaller class sizes and stricter COVID protocols.
COFI’s parent ambassadors say they also hear concerns about COVID in schools. And lately, a new issue has emerged: the spread of monkeypox. Coordinator Gabriela Tenorio says they refer families to city resources and do their best to answer questions from a parents’ perspective.
It’s yet another challenge they have to overcome as they keep on knocking on doors, looking to recruit 4-year-olds and, hopefully, boost CPS’ enrollment numbers.
“When a mom comes to your door and talks to you about it, and gives you that information,” said Tenorio, ever the optimist, “it makes a difference.”
Sarah Karp contributing reporting to this story.
Nereida Moreno and Sarah Karp cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @nereidamorenos, @SSKedreporter and @WBEZeducation.