Cook County announces Project Rainbow to address pandemic learning losses

The county-led project is aimed to filling early education quality gaps and a digital divide that has failed students over the past year and a half.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces new early education initiative Project Rainbow, a county-led effort to address children’s learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, on Wednesday at the George Dunne Cook County Building downtown.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle talks about Project Rainbow, a new early education initiative.

Nichole Shaw/Sun-Times

Cook County has created an education program aimed at helping fill a three-month learning gap brought on by the pandemic.

Project Rainbow is an early education initiative that plans to roll out free and accessible video content and repurposed learning materials via the county television channel and a new county app. The content was created and mostly paid for by 24 partner organizations.

“Project Rainbow speaks to the county’s efforts to bridge the digital divide in advanced digital equity, with nearly a quarter of the households in Cook County lacking access to broadband,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday. “We’ve been through a storm with the pandemic upending life as we knew it. But after a storm, always comes the rainbow.”

The program is expected to provide a long-term approach to supplement in-person instruction and overcome the educational barriers experienced by children 3 to 6.

Erickson Institute, one of the project partners, said immigrants and children of color are less likely to have access to quality early childhood education programs and these same students are less likely to have home internet connections.

“We know that online learning is never going to replace in-person schooling,” said Alan Mather, president of Golden Apple. “But in these difficult times, for parents to have tools to engage their children and for children themselves to be engaged, this is vital. So we are happy to be able to provide these lessons that professional actors will be performing.”

Golden Apple teachers designed the curriculum for the project and aligned it to meet state standards. Lessons that will be available are accessible to those in special education as well as dual-language learners.

The project was the idea of Nick Shields, communications and public affairs director for the Cook County president’s office, who saw firsthand the effects the pandemic had on his three children.

“In the weeks and months ahead, we will disrupt how the local government uses its current television station,” Shields said. “Through this free initiative, we’re looking to inform, inspire, and impact our children and families in the most positive way. As our content library grows, powered by a curriculum created by teachers, young learners will be able to practice their ABCs and so much more.”

Some of the content being made available will feature instruction about the county’s forest preserves and what lives in them; first steps of financial literacy; the galaxy and how it works; and even a little Shakespeare. Previews of Forest Preserves of Cook County Wild and Wonderful: Fish, Bringing Brookfield Zoo to You: Nocturnal and Chicago Botanic Garden’s Maria’s Nature Notebooks are available on YouTube.

Project Rainbow programming will air on Cook County’s cable channel at 10 a.m. and at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, beginning Thursday, Aug. 12. The app, which was developed by students on the University of Chicago TechTeam and advised by app experts at Microsoft, will be made available on Google Play and Apple in the coming weeks.

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