The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
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Marcy Newberry closing, 230 children losing Head Start seats
The 130-year-old Marcy Newberry Association will close its doors Friday, leaving 230 children without Early Head Start and Head Start classes, and 52 staff members without jobs.
Executive Director Benjamin Kendrick says financial woes caused the closing. He said the funding levels provided by early childhood programs are “just not enough to maintain operations.”
To make ends meet, the program used blended funding – a common strategy where children are not enrolled unless they meet the eligibility criteria for both an early childhood education program (like Head Start or Early Head Start, or state early childhood education programs) plus state child care assistance.
But the programs have eligibility criteria that are different, sometimes even mutually exclusive. Early Head Start, Head Start and state preschool programs are geared toward the neediest families; child care assistance requires parents to be either employed or in school.
Kendrick says Marcy Newberry struggled to find children who qualified for both – making it hard to keep classes full.
The agency's problems filling seats became even more acute as the state began turning more families away from child care assistance due to funding cuts.
Low enrollment dealt the final financial blows.
City to step in
Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Support Services, says that the city will be working with the agency to track down each child affected by the closure, and offer them a choice of placements in year-round Head Start programs, or those in local schools.
He says the Head Start seats, rather than being lost in the agency’s closure, will follow children to the programs where they end up.
But Kathy Jackson, an assistant infant-toddler teacher at the agency’s Marcy Center location in North Lawndale, says that many parents don’t plan to seek alternative arrangements.
Since it’s summer, she says, many have told her they plan to leave children with older siblings, or send them to Park District camps.
Ken Campbell, whose 3-year-old and 4-year-old grandchildren attended the center’s Fosco Park location on the Near West Side, says he doesn’t know yet where his youngsters will end up.
“Educationally it’s in very poor tatse that we have so few options,” he says. “With that foundation being taken away, it does more damage to the community, to the families, to society as a whole.”
He adds: “This should be number one on the agenda, that the babies need to be educated.”
Blended funding common, but some children left out
Brynn Seibert, director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, says Chicago’s Head Start spending “lags far behind the national average,” making it hard for programs to make ends meet without blended funding.
The city spends an average of $5,331 per child, she said, compared to a national average of $7,976, and $11,271 a year in New York City.
But, she says, the result is unfair. “No family should be turned away from Head Start because their children don’t qualify for other funding streams,” Seibert says.
Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children, says that it’s become increasingly difficult for early childhood agencies to juggle funding streams that “are attached to different outcomes, different objectives and different criteria.”
“When you have to dip each child into every funding stream to make it work, it’s hard to do,” she says. "It's a huge loss."
Agency had struggled for months
In addition to the Marcy Center location in North Lawndale, the agency had one location in Austin and two on the Near West Side. Three of the sites offered Early Head Start and preschool services; one had programs for older children.
Though staffers received no official word of the closure until letters to parents were sent out Wednesday of this week, they sensed the agency would shut down, and began telling parents to seek other options.
Jackson says the closure came after months of problems.
First came a pay cut in December, then another in February -- cuts so large they left even some decade-long staff earning minimum wage.
Then, in April, the agency began falling behind on paychecks to all staff, including state-certified preschool teachers paid for with CPS funds.
“People were getting evicted from their homes, overdraft fees, late charges, all kinds of things because of the financial situation,” Jackson says.
The missing pay led some staff to leave; without money to pay for transportation, others could not show up for work (though some were offered $35 for gas money to tide them over).
As staff were unable to come to work, the centers were forced to turn away some parents because there was not enough staff to watch over children enrolled in programs.
“Some of the parents were angry that they had paid (child care) copayments and now, there’s no teachers,” Jackson says. “We were turning them around at the door.”
The letters to parents explaining the closure, Jackson said, blamed staff absenteeism and resignation for the closing.
This angers her, because many people kept showing up to work despite the problems.
“They were giving us half a check,” she says. “We still came.”