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Lateshia Hollingsworth holding her son at pick-up time in Little Angels Learning Center, 6701 S. Emerald Ave.
Lateshia Hollingsworth holding her son at pick-up time in Little Angels Learning Center, 6701 S. Emerald Ave.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

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Mothers build black, brown coalition in fight to restore funding for early learning centers

Some centers losing funding as the city rolls out universal pre-k, forcing many to close. Parents have banded together to stop the closures.

More than 100 people packed the basement of a quaint church in Englewood, where a panel of African American and Hispanic mothers sat nervously as music softly played.

The black and brown mothers spent months organizing the town hall last month, where they could talk about their fears of losing established early learning centers in their neighborhoods.

As the city launches universal, full-day prekindergarten for 4-year-olds citywide, it also is rolling out a new funding system — and now, some early learning centers have seen their funds reduced or eliminated, forcing 102 classrooms in 35 neighborhoods to close. Those that won’t close say they will have to cut back on services.

In addition to having more kids going to programs at CPS schools, the mothers say more of the for-profit centers and programs that did receive funding are less familiar to them.

But the mothers are fighting back, and now have a footprint in two-thirds of the city, they say, including in West Austin, Back of the Yards, North Lawndale, Pilsen, Englewood and Little Village.

“Numbers equal power,” said Lateshia Hollingsworth, a parent advocate at Little Angels Learning Center, which lost funding. “If the people we align with go to their neighborhood alderman, their state representatives and tell them about this issue, we gain more power.”

Cherelle Bilal has helped create a coalition of mothers that reaches beyond race or ethnicity.
Cherelle Bilal, fighting to preserve daycare funding, has helped create a coalition of mothers that reaches beyond race or ethnicity.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Cherelle Bilal, another parent advocate with Little Angels, said they have camped out in front of their aldermen’s offices, knocked on the doors of their state representatives and cold called anyone they deemed might have influence in the matter.

Already, they were able to get back $6 million in funding to keep some programs open through the end of the school year.

“It’s wonderful to see all of us come together as one,” Bilal said.

Rainbow history

Chicago has a rich history of multiracial coalitions. The 1960s “Rainbow Coalition” fought police brutality and housing discrimination, and helped improve socioeconomic conditions for working-class whites, African Americans and Hispanics.

A black-brown coalition also helped elect Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor in 1983.

Mary Ottinot, a parent advocate for Pilsen’s El Hogar Del Nino, recognizes their organizing efforts are small compared to the Rainbow Coalition years ago. Still, she said, they are inspired by history and hope to breach “barriers” between black and brown people.

“You can see where the black and brown communities are coming together. It’s dynamic, it’s amazing,” Ottinot said. “Our fight for wraparound services in early childhood education is the start for us in understanding how much we have in common and how we share many of the same struggles.”

Rolling out universal Pre-K

Abiola Mustapha (left) and Nakeelah Fleming at Little Angel’s Learning Center in Englewood.
Abiola Mustapha (left) and Nakeelah Fleming at Little Angel’s Learning Center in Englewood.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Earlier this year, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services launched a new process to apply for funding that prioritized programs that advanced kindergarten readiness, had lower child-to-adult ratios, higher teacher salaries and a more stringent staffing qualification.

The city said it received proposals from more than 150 learning centers citywide. Over the summer, 101 of those centers learned they would receive funding to keep services available; those contracts started Dec. 1. Nearly $200 million would be disbursed to new and existing learning centers, $42 million more than last year; the city said that increase allowed it to add 1,600 slots for kids in community centers.

“In recent years research has demonstrated the importance of high-quality early learning experiences in long-term education outcomes for children,” the city said in a document explaining the changes. “Therefore, states and cities are looking for ways to provide universal pre-k for four-year-olds, knowing that it is a public benefit. As public schools take on this responsibility, the role of private early learning centers will focus more on younger children, ensuring they have quality care.”

But centers that lost funding now question the process; they’re frustrated because, they say, it is unclear why they were passed over.

At the town hall, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he didn’t know about the new application process until Little Angels approached his office in August.

“We were not aware of what was going on,” said Sawyer.

Sawyer introduced a City Council resolution, co-sponsored by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), that helped secure funding for 25 early learning centers to stay open through June.

While Little Angels now has enough money to provide care and services through the start of the summer, it’s receiving only 80% of its previous funding. If the center can’t replace the lost $330,000 — its entire operating budget — it will close for good; 40 kids and their families would be forced to go elsewhere.

Mothers from across the city speak at a panel in an Englewood church about how important funding is for keeping critical childcare centers open in their neighborhoods. The panel was held on Nov. 19, 2019.
Mothers from across the city speak at a panel about how important funding is for keeping early learning centers open in their neighborhoods. The panel was held in November at an Englewood church.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

“The city is coming in and interrupting our continuity of care,” said Nashone Greer-Adams, founder and executive director of Little Angels. “Centers like ours do more than let kids play with Legos. We help nurture children’s brain growth during time that is critical for their development while having intimate relationships with entire families.”

Parents say they want to keep the early learning centers open because they are familiar with them, and because the centers focus on the development of young children at a critical age. Also, they say, they allow parents bond with their kids while also pursuing their own education.

City spokeswoman Jordan Troy said officials are looking at ways to help passed-over centers stay open.

“Increasing opportunities and quality programming for all families and children is a top priority for the City, which is why [the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services] is working diligently with early learning program providers who saw a decrease in funding to fully understand the impact on their families as well as to create a sustainability plan for these organizations,” she said.

Sandy Barrera doesn’t know if some of the centers chosen for funding or the city’s planned universal pre-k can provide the same support her family receives at St. Joseph Child Development Center in Back of the Yards. Her son cried when he learned its days were numbered.

“Either I let this fight go, or I continue fighting,” Barrera said. “But it is important to remember we are our children’s voices.”

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