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Chicago Program Aims to Close Achievement Gap for Youngest Students

April 5, 2011 at 6:51 PM EDT
Education correspondent John Merrow reports on a Chicago program that targets high-risk, low-income young children before they begin falling behind in school.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how educators in Chicago are working to give lower-income students a leg up in the pre-kindergarten years and boost their prospects for life.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the story.

WOMAN: All right, so let’s see. Let’s see what I can see here. OK.

JOHN MERROW: Children raised in homes with educated parents swim in a sea of language, a world of vocabulary-rich conversations.

WOMAN: Why don’t you show daddy what you want him to do?

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: Why don’t you demonstrate?

MAN: Show — yes, show me what you want.

JOHN MERROW: The contrast for low-income children could not be more dramatic. By the time children are ready for kindergarten, some will have heard millions more words than others. Without intervention, this vocabulary gap can lead to a school achievement gap. That, in turn, can mean college for some, while others drop out without even learning how to read.

BARBARA BOWMAN, Chicago Public Schools: The cost of school failure is enormous. It’s prisons. Its unemployment. It’s dissatisfaction in neighborhoods and communities. All of that is going to cost you and your kids money.

JOHN MERROW: A lot of money. It costs about $30,000 a year to keep someone behind bars. Over two-thirds of inmates never finish high school.

WOMAN: Boy, you can pour me some water.

JOHN MERROW: This program in Chicago helps children before they have a chance to fall behind.

WOMAN: Can you fill my cup up? I need some water.

DIANA RAUNER, Ounce of Prevention Fund: We spend about $18,000 to $20,000 per child per year. That seems like a lot of money, but when you do the return on investment, we believe it actually pays off.

JOHN MERROW: With a per-pupil price tag that is two-thirds of what it costs to house a prisoner, Diana Rauner’s program Educare provides high-quality child care in preschool for at-risk children up to age 5. Infants are accepted as young as six weeks.

DIANA RAUNER: The most important time for us to intervene is really in the first 1,000 days of life, a time when the brain is developing so quickly and when interactions with adults matter so much to children’s developing sense of who they are and their language development.

JOHN MERROW: Educare is open 11 hours a day, five days a week, all year round. Children get good food, regular exercise and those with special needs receive additional supports in small groups.

WOMAN: Would you like me to put the sand in your hand? Can you say hand?

CHILD: Hand.

WOMAN: OK.

DIANA RAUNER: Our teachers all have bachelor’s degrees, and they have infant-toddler certification. They have worked very, very hard to learn how to appropriately develop language and social-emotional skills.  

WOMAN: You finished?

CHILD: Yes.

WOMAN: So, are you ready to put your beans inside?

CHILD: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: The program seems to be working. A study that measured literacy skills and emotional development found that students who attended Educare for five years enter kindergarten as ready as their middle-class peers.

DIANA RAUNER: The only way we’re going to systemically break that achievement gap, close that achievement gap, is by investing in early education.

JOHN MERROW: Chicago has about 90,000 children under the age of 5 that need a program like Educare. Educare has room for just 149 children.

WOMAN: Just like when you go to nap at nap time.

JOHN MERROW: Think about that. That’s not even two-tenths of 1 percent. What about the other 99.8 percent of needy children? What is Chicago doing, if anything, to close their vocabulary gap?

WOMAN: Let’s see who we’re missing today. One, two, three, four, five, six.

BARBARA BOWMAN: Every child whose parents wants him to be in preschool, and cannot afford to send them to a private school, ought to have an opportunity to go to a public preschool.

WOMAN: Zebra, zebra, what do you hear?

JOHN MERROW: That’s the goal, but money for preschool is tight.

BARBARA BOWMAN: What we’re trying to do is to find a model that will provide sufficient support for most of the children who need it.

JOHN MERROW: Chicago’s largest preschool program costs about $4,000 per student, significantly less than Educare.

WOMAN: What number is that?

JOHN MERROW: But it’s closed in the summer, is just for 3- and 4-year-olds, and lasts only two-and-a-half-hours a day, not 11.

Is two-and-a-half-hours a day enough for high-risk kids?

BARBARA BOWMAN: For some children, two-and-a-half-hours a day is probably enough, particularly if we can offer it two years running.

JOHN MERROW: The program is called Preschool for All, but that’s a misnomer. It reaches only 24,000 kids, and at some schools, there’s a waiting list.

Even when you add in the children attending Head Start and other pre-K programs, that’s only 37,000 out of the city’s 90,000 neediest children who benefit. And the rest?

JACQUELINE BROWN, grandmother: This hand. Remember that hand. OK.

We’re here from 6:30 in the morning until about 6:00 at night. They play by themselves the majority of the time. They love watching TV.

JOHN MERROW: Jacqueline Brown spends each day with her grandchildren while her daughter is out looking for work.

JACQUELINE BROWN: In this community, there’s a lot of kids that don’t go to school. Some parents need their kids to go all day. They don’t have an all day here, so they just only go part-time, in the morning time from 8:00 to 10:30.

JOHN MERROW: In a large a city like Chicago, just getting to the program can be a challenge, especially for families with more than one child and no car.

JACQUELINE BROWN: Some people feel that it’s a waste of time. They are going to have to go pick them up in an hour-and-a-half, so they feel it’s not worth it.

MARIA WHELAN, Illinois Action for Children: I don’t think we understood how much of a barrier deep, deep poverty is in terms of engaging families and creating opportunities for children.

JOHN MERROW: Maria Wheeler’s organization helps low-income families find child care and educational programs for their children. It’s a struggle.

MARIA WHELAN: Almost two-thirds of the 3- and 4-year-olds in these very, very poor communities have no access to classroom-based preschool Head Start or child-care programs.

JOHN MERROW: The kids who need it the most.

MARIA WHELAN: The kids who need it the most.

JOHN MERROW: Does this embarrass you?

BARBARA BOWMAN: It embarrasses me in the sense that we are unable, not just in Illinois, but throughout the United States, to mobilize sufficient public opinion to support something that everybody, every piece of research shows would help us just immeasurably improve child outcomes in terms of education.

JOHN MERROW: In these hard economic times, Chicago spends on average about $5,000 per child on 40 percent of its neediest kids and virtually nothing on the rest. That choice, provide more services to fewer children or fewer services to more, is one that Maria Whelan rejects.

MARIA WHELAN: It’s a choice that we absolutely refuse to make. I’ll be damned if there are 10 sick children and amoxicillin exists for only one of them. I think the job of those of us who do this work is to go out and break down every door and every barrier we can to make sure there are 10 doses of amoxicillin for all of those children.  

JOHN MERROW: And, as difficult as it is today, the future for preschool in Chicago looks worse.

The budget situation right now…

BARBARA BOWMAN: Is dire. Many states were using stimulus money to support educational programs. In Chicago, we were using it for our preschool program. If we don’t have that money next year, we will have to cut the number of children that we serve.

JOHN MERROW: Illinois is not alone. At least 10 states have already cut spending for early education, with more certain to follow.