CHICAGO – Child care centers across Chicago relied on state and federal funding to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic as enrollment plunged.
Now, with restrictions lifted and parents returning to work, the need for child care continues to grow.
But even before the pandemic, some private child care centers, often owned by women and people of color, have seen eroding enrollment.
“Universal pre-K,” said Steven Coles, owner of Lil’ Scholars Learning Center in Lawndale. “It’s strangling private day care of 3- to 5-year-olds.”
In 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a rollout to provide preschool to all 4-year-olds in Chicago by 2022. The plan was for Chicago Public Schools to primarily provide preschool care and for private child care providers to focus on children age 3 and younger, said Shauna Ejeh, senior vice president of programs at Illinois Action for Children, an early childhood education nonprofit. Nationally, President Joe Biden is pushing for taxpayer-funded universal preschool starting at age 3.
Private child care owners say universal pre-K leaves many families with little choice where to send their children to preschool because cost becomes the determining factor of choosing CPS instead of private preschool, even if the private program better fits a family’s needs.
While day care owners stress the importance of making early childhood education available to all families, they say focusing on universal pre-K in CPS overlooks some benefits private centers offer that CPS might not. Child care centers tend to have a lower ratio of students to teachers, stay open late to accommodate working parents and provide the convenience of having siblings all at one location.
This fall, CPS will have 16,020 preschool seats available, the district said in a news release. For the 2020-21 school year, private preschools in Chicago served more than 54,000 children, according to Private School Review, which compiles school-reported enrollment data from private schools across the nation. But the financial burden of losing enrollment, plus the increased cost of caring for infant children, has left many child care centers hastening to adjust their model to account for losing students to CPS pre-K.
“I have a feeling it’s going to get worse,” said Gloria Blackman-Upton, director of H.O.M.E Childcare in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. “I totally agree with President Biden putting more money into the public schools’ pre-K systems, but we also need to focus on pre-K systems in private centers.”
A ‘Catch-22’ for families
A child’s early development, especially in the first three years, is critical for the rest of their lives. Providing a child with a “rich early childhood program” affects future development and achievement, said George Theoharis, an education professor at Syracuse University. It creates a foundation, not just of academic learning, but of a sense of identity that “seems to generate life outcomes,” Theoharis said.
Before the rollout of universal pre-K at CPS, Blackman-Upton had about 30 preschool-age children in her classroom, she said. That number dropped to 20 around August 2019. With the pandemic, she’s now down to about 12 preschoolers.
The no-cost appeal leads many of her students’ parents to switch to CPS preschool, Blackman-Upton said. But when public school lets out around 3 p.m., and most people work until 5 p.m., parents have to coordinate having a neighbor or babysitter pick their child up from the preschool program and watch them until the parents get home, Blackman-Upton said.
It’s a “Catch-22″ for families, she said.
“If it’s free for them ... I get it,” Blackman-Upton said. “But at the same time, it’s an inconvenience for a lot of parents.”
Blackman-Upton has noticed that the families that receive child care subsidies have mostly remained at her center, but families paying for care tend to leave for public preschool.
Families that don’t need care before or after school can send their children to a private day care preschool for free via Head Start funding, said Cerathel Burgess-Burnett, deputy commissioner of child services at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.
Eboni Rivera, 30, of Woodlawn, enrolled her 4-year-old son in a Head Start pre-K program at House of Kidds Learning Center in Ashburn last fall. Her son will complete another year of preschool there before going to Woodlawn Community Elementary School for kindergarten, Rivera said.
Around the same time Rivera was researching preschools for her son, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Rivera considered sending him to their neighborhood CPS school, but House of Kidds was ultimately the best fit.
“As a single mom, I have to make sure he has structure,” Rivera said. “I have to make sure he was in somewhere that not only cares about kids, period, but makes sure to take a little time to understand the children who might not get it the first time or second time around.”
That House of Kidds started fully in person in September, and that was also a determining factor, Rivera said. She didn’t want her son to “jump into e-learning,” where he might associate the screen time with being on YouTube instead of focusing on learning.
Heather Kinion’s 4-year-old daughter spent all but the last two months of preschool learning virtually at Goudy Elementary School, a CPS school in Uptown. Still, Kinion said the teachers were “incredible,” and she saw “huge leaps and bounds” in her daughter’s learning.
“My daughter went from not really writing her name to writing her name and other letters,” said Kinion, 41, of Andersonville. “It’s definitely because of the teachers and not me.”
Kinion’s quilting business gave her the flexibility to work around her daughter’s school schedule, pausing work when she needed to help her daughter with school or pick her up at the end of the day.
“We’re privileged that it was no problem to organize the day,” Kinion said.
No ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution
This fall, CPS will have preschool classes at 353 schools and plans to add 109 classrooms by fall 2022 to reach “full universal capacity,” staying on pace with the city’s initial timeline, said Bryan Stokes, CPS chief of early childhood education.
Stokes said it’s “not a competition” for children or resources between CPS and community-based organizations.
But at Lil’ Scholars, Coles said parents have been “almost forced” to send their children to CPS preschools since it’s free, Coles said. And comparing public to private preschool programs in Chicago is “not an apples-to-apples situation,” Coles said. The Chicago Board of Education manages the district’s preschools while the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services regulates day cares, so CPS pre-K is handled “more in-house,” he said.
DCFS is “not coming in like they’re doing at child care, checking on files constantly, checking on this, checking on that,” Coles said.
Some private preschools have found ways to adjust to the changes.
Kids’ Work Chicago Too in Lakeview opened in Chicago in 2006, first as an in-home day care before expanding into a center a couple of years later, said co-owner and executive director Sarah Cudnik.
Cudnik saw an initial decline in enrollment as CPS began rolling out the universal pre-K plan and families moved their children to neighborhood schools for preschool. Her centers have since adjusted to recognize their “unique selling propositions” for families: the convenience of early drop-off, late pickup and having siblings all at one location, Cudnik said.
“Preschool for all families is certainly a positive thing, a needed thing that we support,” Cudnik said. “A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t necessarily going to work in the sense that families have all sorts of different needs.”
The rollout is “not affecting us at the moment,” Cudnik said.
Other centers already structured around sending children to public preschool when they turn 4 have been largely unaffected by the CPS universal pre-K rollout. Valerie Lasley, owner of Val’s Daycare Home in South Chicago, said when children enter preschool, her business provides care before and after school and transportation to and from school while parents work.
Risking ‘child care desert’
One issue threatening private day cares is that they are losing 4- and 5-year-olds to CPS preschools and being urged to focus on caring for infants and toddlers, but infants are the “most expensive population to serve,” said Ejeh with Illinois Action for Children.
Many private child care centers depend on the income from pre-K students to offset the costs of caring for infants, said Beata Skorusa, head of school at the Montessori Foundations of Chicago in McKinley Park.
Infants and toddlers require fewer children per teacher and extra amenities like cribs and changing tables. Since preschools can have more students per teacher and classroom, they have a lower per-pupil cost.
“Day cares get more money serving older kids than they can get with younger children,” Ejeh said. “That piece wasn’t really figured out, how to maintain current levels of compensation.”
Whereas preschools can have up to 10 children per teacher, regulations require a teacher for every four infants in child care centers, according to DCFS, which regulates private child care centers. This makes it significantly harder to earn sufficient income to pay employees and keep up with facility expenses, day care owners said.
Burgess-Burnett said any of the 99 private day cares the city allocates state and federal funding to could request dollars to convert preschool classrooms into spaces for younger children.
If private centers continue to close because of the financial strain of losing preschool children, Chicago could be at risk of developing an “infant and toddler child care desert,” said Skorusa, who is also a member of the steering committee for Child Care Advocates United, a nonprofit that supports community-based child care organizations.
Some child care centers feel pitted against CPS preschools and are financially strained as a result. If more centers close, and less infant and toddler care is available, the results could be “devastating,” Skorusa said.
“The ideal scenario (for universal pre-K) is a combination of some community-based organizations and some schools,” Skorusa said. “I’d rather see us working as partners than competing for dollars and children.”