Debra Floyd and Rosalia Salgado talk with a family about how to register their daughter for the Chicago Public Schools’ universal pre-K program. A group of parent ambassadors have been going door-to-door in Chicago neighborhoods with low preschool enrollment, leaving flyers and trying to persuade families to sign up.

Debra Floyd and Rosalia Salgado tell a family how to register their daughter for the Chicago Public Schools’ universal pre-K program. A group of parent ambassadors have been going door-to-door in Chicago neighborhoods with low preschool enrollment, leaving flyers and trying to persuade families to sign up.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Why aren’t more Chicago parents going for free universal preschool?

CPS is offering universal pre-K for 4-year-olds in most of the city, but WBEZ found that thousands of seats are unfilled — mostly in schools serving high numbers of low-income families with large majorities of Black or Latino children.

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It’s 85 degrees on a recent morning on the West Side. Gabriela Tenorio and her team of parent ambassadors gather on a corner 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 outreach on behalf of the parent advocacy group COFI — Community Organizing and Family Issues. Bearing pamphlets and clipboards, they plan to knock on every door in sight to spread the word that universal preschool is offered through the Chicago Public Schools.

In 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to move to universal, full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. CPS offered free preschool then only to kids from low-income families.

Emanuel said the program would prioritize communities with the most children in need — preschool is considered the best investment in education, especially for low-income children. He also said it would help boost enrollment citywide, which had been bleeding for years and which has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for preschool.

After the 2018 launch of universal pre-K, new communities have been added each year.

Four years later, full-day preschool for 4-year-olds is now available in 64 of Chicago’s 77 community areas. And, despite pandemic-related delays,significantly more seats are available for 4-year-olds in nearly every part of the city, and more than two times as many children are enrolled. Last year, 10,300 CPS 4-year-olds were in full-day pre-K, up from 4,900 in 2018.

Yet CPS has struggled to fill all the classrooms in areas with the greatest needs. With the pandemic, CPS’ overall enrollment took a major hit during the 2020-21 school year. Preschool was hardest-hit, and it has yet to recover. Shortly into the 2022-23 school year, 3,200 seats for 4-year-olds remain unfilled.

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Most of the schools unable to fill seats serve high numbers of low-income students, with large majorities of Black or Latino children, a WBEZ analysis found.

And the West Side, one of the city’s neediest areas, has not benefited from the preschool expansion. It already had far more preschool seats than any other part of the city in 2018, about 3,000, and now has only slightly more. But enrollment has dropped, from 59% of seats filled to 51%.

Enrollment is much higher in North Side areas, where more affluent families live, and in some predominantly Latino areas across the city. Three areas — 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.

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WBEZ’s analysis also found that enrollment rates didn’t change in any meaningful way between 2018 and 2022 during the move to universal preschool. The rate in some of the city’s lowest-income areas, including the West Side and the Far Southeast Side, stayed the same or dropped, remaining 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 the younger age group.

All of which raises questions about whether universal preschool for 4-year-olds is an effective strategy for helping Chicago communities with the greatest need — and whether targeting the neediest areas with programs for both 3- and 4-year-olds might enroll more children.

Four-year-old Esteban Patino in a preschool classroom this summer at Haugan Elementary School in Albany Park.

Four-year-old Esteban Patino in a preschool classroom this summer at Haugan Elementary School in Albany Park.

Nereida Moreno / WBEZ

In a written statement, CPS says it “has committed to ensuring that every 4-year-old in the city has the opportunity to attend preschool to gain valuable academic and social-emotional skills and experiences.” The statement also says school officials are working to “mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 that impacted enrollment at CPS and school districts across the nation.”

Preschool enrollment dropped by 34% in the 2020-21 school year, with enrollment falling by 44% for Black families.

CPS says it puts more resources in parts of the city with the greatest needs, starting with its rollout in those areas. As a result, it says, “The lowest-need communities are the last to expand and therefore showed the greatest growth in enrollment in the last few years.”

Selling preschool with ads

To market preschools, CPS is placing ads on the CTA, billboards, online and TV. It also provides targeted support to schools in 26 communities with low enrollment and promotes enrollment through other city agencies, members of the Chicago City Council and back-to-school events. CPS hired staff and gave families access to tablets for the application and has partnered with groups such as COFI for door-to-door outreach.

Tenorio, who oversees early learning ambassadors at COFI, knows the enrollment struggles well.

She says some families don’t sign up because they don’t know how to navigate the system — or think their kids are too young. Others prefer to keep their kids at home for safety reasons.

But she says these issues are not insurmountable. Her group works with the city to identify areas with the lowest enrollment. They’ve narrowed it to five West Side and South Side neighborhoods: Austin, Englewood, West Englewood, North Lawndale and South Chicago.

Parent volunteers with the group Community Organizing and Family Issues begin a day of looking for kids n the West Side to sign up for preschool.

Parent volunteers with the group Community Organizing and Family Issues begin a day of looking for kids n the West Side to sign up for preschool.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Hours of knocking on doors

Knocking on doors to recruit preschoolers is tough work for the parent ambassadors at COFI. The outreach workers spend up to five hours each day in the sun, often climbing steep porches and facing close encounters with guard dogs.

On a good day, they’ll meet dozens of parents, but only a fraction have kids eligible for preschool. On a bad day, they might strike out completely.

A man who answers the door at one home says the 3-year-old who lives there “ain’t old enough” for school. But the team leaves flyers and keeps moving.

Parent ambassador Rosalia Salgado keeps track of address that volunteers have visited while going door to door on the West Side to enroll more kids in the Chicago Public Schools’ universal pre-K program.

Parent ambassador Rosalia Salgado keeps track of address that volunteers have visited while going door to door on the West Side to enroll more kids in the Chicago Public Schools’ universal pre-K program.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

On a recent day, three parent ambassadors walk into Ericson Elementary School in Garfield Park. Ericson’s student population is 99% black and 88% low-income. Last year, it filled just 29 of 60 preschool seats.

The school had excellent enrollment before the pandemic, with as many as 95% of its 80 seats filled. Then, during the first full year of the pandemic, Ericson saw a huge enrollment drop. Just 17 students were enrolled. The school hasn’t fully recovered, but things seem to be looking up.

The group meets administrator Michelle Banks, who tells them to send kids her way. She says many parents have been coming by in recent weeks with questions about the enrollment process. Some families don’t have internet at home and need support.

“We do have some seats,” Banks says. “If you see some people, tell them to come on in.”

The ambassadors promise to spread the word.

Chicago kids can attend nearly all preschools with space, though priority is based on need, home address and siblings. But Tenorio says some parents hesitate about neighborhood schools because they’re concerned about violence and often wait until the last minute to see if they can get in elsewhere.

Parent ambassadors have knocked on thousands of doors trying to sign up preschoolers for the Chicago Public Schools system’s free universal pre-K progam.

Parent ambassadors have knocked on thousands of doors trying to sign up preschoolers for the Chicago Public Schools system’s free universal pre-K progam.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Enrollment wins, losses

With universal preschool, CPS hopes to engage more families, better prepare kids for kindergarten and help rebuild a school district that’s desperate for new families. Over the past decade, CPS has lost nearly 74,000 students, with more losses expected this fall.

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 had 1,910 kindergartners and 1,680 full-day pre-K slots last year. In all areas, there are fewer preschoolers enrolled than kindergartners. But the preschool dropoff is steepest in parts of the city that serve the most disadvantaged students.

Consider Haugan Elementary in Albany Park on the North Side, which is 83% Latino and 74% low-income. Last year, the school had 140 preschool seats, and 66% were filled.

The 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,” says Melissa Sanchez, Haugan’s assistant principal.

Despite relatively low enrollment last year, Sanchez says the school had no problem filling seats this year. It hosted movie nights, ice-cream socials and parent workshops to build connections and boost enrollment.

Across the city, plans to open and shutter classrooms this year reflect where CPSt expects to see enrollment grow — as well as decline.

The school system opened two new early-learning centers in North Side and Northwest Side neighborhoods — in Lincoln Park and Jefferson Park — as it nears the end of its move to universal preschool and to accommodate demand. Of the seven new schools adding 20 classrooms this fall, nearly all are in North Side communities, with lower-than-average numbers of low-income students and Black or Latino students.

CPS officials note that the North Side communities are in the final phase of the rollout of universal preschool and that historically the North Side has had fewer preschool seats because earlier funding prioritized under-resourced areas. CPS plans to be in all 77 of the city’s community areas by next fall.

To address declining enrollment, CPS closed 47 classrooms in 46 schools, most which serve large numbers of low-income families and students of color in communities including Garfield Park, Gage Park and Belmont-Cragin. Each school will still have at least one pre-K class and can open a second if demand surges.

Dewey Elementary in Back of the Yards lost a classroom. The school filled just 25 of its 80 preschool slots last year.

“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,” preschool teacher Iesha Curtis says.

Some parents enroll their kids but then fall behind on attendance. Curtis cites COVID anxiety and says many parents prefer to keep their youngest kids with family members. Others struggle with childcare and can’t afford to lose work hours if their child gets sick.

“I don’t think [CPS] has a solid plan,” Curtis says. “They don’t communicate enough with the parents ahead of time. 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.”

Aiming to meet families’ varying needs

New research from the University of Chicago has found that full-day preschool is linked to higher student attendance. That’s not the only benefit. Experts, including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, say early childhood education can help break the cycle of poverty over the long term and that it’s best to reach kids as early as possible, from birth to preschool, while their brains are still developing.

While all children deserve high-quality early learning, schools should prioritize families with the least access, says Samantha Melvin, assistant research professor for the Erikson Institute, a graduate program focused on early childhood education. And that takes targeted, intentional work.

But some parents might opt for private day care centers and home-based programs, which tend to have more flexible hours.

“You can knock on as many doors as you want,“ Melvin says. “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 Family Child Care on the Southeast Side, says her business caters to families who prefer a more intimate environment.

But, with universal pre-K, many home-based providers are struggling. Steven Coles, who owns a day care center on the West Side, says 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: monkeypox. Tenorio says they refer families to city resources and try to answer questions from parents’ perspective.

It’s yet another challenge as they keep knocking on doors, looking to recruit families and, they hope, boost enrollment in CPS.

“When a mom comes to your door and talks to you about it and gives you that information,” Tenorio says, “it makes a difference.”

Contributing: Sarah Karp

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