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Continuing research across many disciplines demonstrates that early childhood experiences have an enormous impact on a child’s future. Positive experiences establish a strong foundation for more effective learning capacities in the future. Negative experiences, depending on their timing, duration and severity, can produce physiological disruptions that lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior and health.

At the District 65 School Board’s meeting on Oct. 7, Barbara Hiller, chief administrative officer, opened a discussion about the District’s early childhood programs, saying, “While we are a K-8 District, the most important thing we can do is find ways to help kids be successful as they enter kindergarten.”

Administrators presented a summary of the District’s early childhood programs.

 “Through a combination of programs – and it truly is a combination of programs – we are providing services to children and families and serve over 400 children,” said Assistant Superintendent Ellen Fogelberg. “The goal of all programs is to provide the support and services that children and families need to ensure the children are ready for kindergarten and a more formal learning experience.”

The District’s early childhood programs are grouped into two centers. The Family Center primarily serves families and infants or toddlers between  6 weeks and 3 years old. The Early Childhood Center serves children who are between 3 and 5 years old.

There are many programs within each of these centers, and each program retains a separate identity because each has a different funding source, and is subject to different eligibility criteria and different rules. As a general rule, the programs serve children from low-income households.

”While each program has separate funding sources and different rules and regulations, all adhere to an approach that embraces development of the whole child,” said Mr. Fogelberg.

 “There was a lot of fragmentation 10 years ago,” said Amy Small, early childhood coordinator. “Over the course of the years it’s come together in more of a seamless effort to be able to provide continuity in the services we provide.”

The Family Center

The District 65 Family Center provides a high quality, standards-based childcare program at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center (JEH), said Angela Johnson, Family Center facilitator. The program includes full-day childcare, five days a week, for up to 29 infants and toddlers (6 weeks to 3 years old), as well as a parenting and parent/child component. The childcare center promotes and monitors each child’s social, emotional, language, physical and intellectual growth. The program is subsidized by state and federal funds and participants must meet certain qualifications.

The Family Center also provides two home-visit programs that serve at-risk families with children from pregnancy to 3 years old, one funded by the Evanston Community Foundation and another through the Illinois State Board of Education. 

Ms. Johnson said the District has four family support advocates who visit homes to work with families. The home visits “help [parents] understand child development and the types of things that are required in order to help children grow to their optimal potential,” she said.

Ms. Johnson said when children have aged-out of a home-visit program, some families felt the District “abandoned” them. Another home-visit program, funded by ECF, was thus established for families with 3- to 5-year- olds. “This program provides pre-school and kindergarten readiness activities, parental education, social service referrals, and other services,” she said.

The District serves 27 infants/toddlers in the childcare program and 68 families through home visits, said Ms. Fogelberg. Because a great deal of brain architecture is shaped by early experiences by age three, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child urges that resources be focused on these early years.

Early Childhood Center

Two of the programs offered at the Early Childhood Center are Preschool for All and Head Start. Six classrooms at JEH are devoted to each program. Most children attend either a morning or an afternoon session, but Head Start also offers a full-day option. 

In each program, a “curriculum” is developed for each child based on the teacher’s observation and evaluation, said Ms. Small. “Concepts and skills appropriate to each child’s stage of development are introduced with the goals of reinforcing social, emotional, physical cultural and intellectual growth,” she said.

The classrooms are rich in verbal experiences, said Ms. Small, in recognition that oral language is the foundation on which written language is formed. Literacy is thus an important part of all of the daily routines.

Teachers and staff encourage parental support and involvement. “We believe that the partnership between the home and school is critical in these early years of development and educational success,” said Ms. Small.

Currently, the District serves 167 children in Preschool for All and 204 in Head Start.

The Early Childhood Center also houses Services for PrePrimary Age Children (SPPAC). It provides free screening and evaluations for all children in the District up to kindergarten age. Children with a disability may be referred for special services or placed in a Preschool for All or Head Start inclusion classroom or placed in one three self-contained special education classrooms at JEH.

The inclusion classrooms have been very popular with parents, said Ms. Fogelberg. “We’ve had a great deal of trouble meeting the demand of parents who want an inclusion classroom, rather than a self-contained setting” for their children.

Approximately 60 children with disabilities are enrolled in an inclusion classroom or in one of the three self-contained special education classrooms at JEH, Ms. Fogelberg added.

The District also receives funding for its early childhood programs through an i3 grant in a partnership with the University of Minnesota. The funding is used to support the Child Parent Center, which provides services to children, teachers and families participating in the District’s early childhood programs and four Title I elementary schools.

Board Comments

“There’s probably a lot of agreement that early childhood support is one of the most important investments we can make,” said Richard Rykhus. He thanked staff for their work in making the early childhood programs “thrive.” He said he would like to see data showing long-term outcomes.

Many other Board members made positive comments about the programs, and several focused their questions on whether the programs were operating at capacity and whether other students might be served. Ms. Johnson said while some slots were open under the grants, space limitations and the turnover of students participating in the programs made it difficult to increase the number of students served.

Candance Chow asked if there was a uniform definition or way to determine if kids “are on track of not on track to being ready for kindergarten.” Ms. Fogelberg said there were standardized assessments to determine whether kids were kindergarten ready. She added that ISBE was developing a kindergarten readiness tool, but that it was still being refined.

A Joint District 65 and 202 Committee recently discussed adopting a joint goal that commits both Districts to work together with the community to ensure all students are proficient in reading. One important facet of this goal would be to partner with early childhood providers to ensure that all children have the necessary literacy skills when they enter kindergarten.

Other organizations, such as Foundation 65, the Youth Organization Umbrella and the McGaw Y, are working to improve students’ literacy skills in after-school or summer school programs.

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said, “There’s a recognition how powerful the summer program is, how powerful the early childhood education is, and how our two Boards are coming together to talk about literacy in the community.

“I think we do need to have another conversation about how we wrap these together in a united effort,” she said.

The Need to Provide Supports Starting at Birth

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (NSCDC) and the National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation found in a joint report that “”early experiences determine whether a child’s developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.”” In light of the scientific research in this area, NSCDC says, “”The need to address significant inequalities in opportunity, beginning in the earliest years of life, is both a fundamental moral responsibility and a critical investment in our nation’s social and economic future.””

From another perspective, many studies point to a “”word gap”” that exists at first grade as being a significant factor in children’s reading abilities in subsequent years. One researcher estimated that “”linguistically disadvantaged”” children know about 5,000 words compared to “”more advantaged children”” who know about 20,000 words when they begin school. The word gap matters. “”Studies … have shown a substantial relationship between vocabulary size in first grade and reading comprehension later on.”” See “”The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning”” (2010).

James J. Heckman, a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics, has studied the issue extensively from an equity and an economic point of view. He says, “”Inequality in early childhood experiences and learning produces inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success.”” He says,  “”Investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 helps reduce the achievement gap, reduce the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate, and reduce overall societal costs.”” For every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education, there is a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment, he says. See “”The Economics of Inequality”” (2011)

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...