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A Visit to Chicago's Educare

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Educare center on the South Side of Chicago, the first of a dozen cutting-edge early learning and care centers now operating around the country. I toured the site with Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a leading advocate for and provider of early care and learning throughout Illinois. Educare centers are largely publicly funded, but public-private partnerships are a key ingredient in their success. About 10 percent of each center's operating budget comes from private funds, but that money helps significantly in ensuring high quality for children, proponents say.

The research on Educare so far shows impressive results: Educare's graduates score higher on kindergarten readiness assessments than national averages, and the longer children are in Educare they better they do. The children the program serves from birth are not only low-income, but also at high risk for developmental and behavioral problems based on maternal age, family involvement in the child welfare system, and other factors.

And here's some research results not yet on the site. Rauner says a longitudinal tracking study of Educare graduates shows the children's cognitive performance does not fade out over time, unlike the gains observed in other studies of preschool's effects. (Educare graduates attend many different Chicago public elementary schools, and the quality varies widely.) Educare children are much less likely than other Chicago schoolchildren to be retained: less than one percent of Educare grads versus 14 percent across the city.

To Rauner, these findings are "not that big of a deal" compared to the impact Educare has on parents. Elementary school teachers rate parents of Educare grads as far more involved in their children's education than the parents of other children. Rauner says Educare's mission is "two-generational" and hopes to change parenting behaviors as well as provide quality care for children on site.

My tour focused on the infant and toddler part of Educare Chicago, where photographs on the walls show children learning through water play, encountering animals, and even making graphs. Teachers work hard to show parents how play helps children learn and encourage them to try similar activities at home.

What struck me most was not only the ratio of adults to children in the age zero-to-3 area—three adults for eight young ones—but the highly nurturing quality of relationships between caregivers and the babies and toddlers. Caregivers held the children frequently, smiled and chatted while changing diapers, and constantly engaged in conversation with them while the children enjoyed floating boats and dumping buckets in water play.

"All these children are at risk for attachment problems," Rauner noted. To ensure strong bonds with their caregivers, the caregivers move with children from birth to age 3. "That practice of changing caregivers from year to year—infant to toddler to 2—we can't do that here," Rauner said. The continuity of care also supports the youngest children's language development, since caregivers know the children well enough to understand what they mean even when they can't express themselves verbally, and can model the words for them.

Teacher training plays a big role in making all this happen. "This is a little bit of a lab-school or teaching hospital. They're working in a fishbowl," Rauner noted. "It's not just keep an eye on [the children] and break it up if there's a fight between toddlers."

Educare's faculty structure provides for a master teacher to work alongside two other teachers, offering coaching, support, modeling, and help planning lesson activities. Teachers are encouraged to pursue advanced degrees, and teachers are paid on the Chicago Public Schools' salary schedule (though pension and benefits are different). The center is now partnering with the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute to come up with joint professional development for Educare teachers and teachers at Donoghue Elementary, a nearby charter school operated by the University.

Such high quality doesn't come cheap. Construction costs range from $8 million and $12 million per center. Each center serves between 140 and 200 children, with an operating budget ranging from $2.8 million to $3.4 million. (Head Start covers 50 to 60 percent of the operating costs, according to the Educare web site.)

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