By Ben Joravsky

In December school board boss Paul Vallas proposed to drastically change the system’s state-funded preschool program. Well, four months have passed without him announcing any specifics, and preschool teachers are starting to fret.

They worry that central-office planners will damage one of the system’s best programs by increasing class size or workloads, replacing teachers with home-schooling pamphlets, or firing much-needed assistants, nurses, and social workers–all in the name of serving more for less.

Central-office planners plead for patience, saying plans are in progress and promising to clue everyone in once they figure out what they’re going to do–which leaves observers wondering: Why change a program that preschool educators believe is working well?

“Preschool education is far too important to mess around with,” says Pat Schwandt, a preschool teacher at Ravenswood School on the north side. “For the sake of all the kids I hope they know what they’re getting into. I hope they’re talking to teachers and parents with experience in preschool education. I hope this isn’t one of those headline-grabbing ideas that winds up a disaster.”

The proposed change in the Chicago Public Schools State Prekindergarten Program is the latest alteration in early childhood education offered by Mayor Daley and his educational followers. A few years ago Daley shifted about 80 federally funded Headstart classrooms from the public schools to community organizations and social service groups. The reason, he said, was not to win favors from the people who received the lucrative Headstart contracts but to save money on teachers’ salaries. In reality, according to a study by PURE, an association of parents and school activists, it cost so much to outfit churches, YMCAs, and other facilities with classrooms that whatever they saved on teachers’ salaries was lost to construction expenses.

The statewide preschool program is similar to Headstart except it’s intended for all three- and four-year-old children–not just those from low-income families–at risk of failing kindergarten because of poverty, poor health, language barriers, or other reasons.

The preschool program, very popular with Governor Edgar, employs social workers–known as screeners–to actively search for eligible children by conducting interviews and examinations. In Chicago there are roughly 13,100 children in the program in 280 schools at a cost of $38 million a year. The program teams social workers and nurses in “clusters” to make regular classroom visits, counsel parents, give children medical exams, and lead work groups for teachers.

“The clusters work well because they break down the barriers to the classroom,” says Schwandt. “As a teacher you’re isolated, there’s not much interaction. But we have work groups where we bounce off different ideas, and the counselors help the parents work with the children. You might have a child who’s struggling, and the nurse examines her and says, ‘This child has poor hearing.’ It’s the kind of backup that school districts like Wilmette’s or Winnetka’s take for granted.”

But Vallas and other officials who came aboard when Mayor Daley took control of the school system last summer felt it was too costly for Chicago. As they saw it the screeners were an unnecessary luxury since their duties could probably be handled by teachers and teachers’ assistants. As for the clusters of social workers, nurses, other educators, and their assistants, it smacked of the sort of featherbedding for which the public schools were notorious.

In a first round of budget cuts in August Vallas eliminated 81 employees from the preschool program, including the screeners. He used the savings to balance the system’s budget. “We were concerned that cuts might damage the program, which had been very effective,” says Georganne Marsh, associate director of PURE. “We asked that a task force of preschool experts be created to examine how to proceed.”

They got no firm response until December 20, when the Sun-Times reported that Vallas had vowed to make drastic changes. According to Vallas, the system wasted far too much money on nonteaching preschool positions and could serve many more children by putting more teachers in the classroom.

“We have assistants to assistants,” he told reporter Rosalind Rossi. “Our preschool population is underserved….We service only 20 to 25 percent of our preschool population.” Vallas went on to say that the changes “may mean job shifts or redefinition of positions. It could mean a number of things. The time line is to have an expanded program up and running by September.”

The article caught everyone by surprise since Vallas apparently hadn’t discussed the matter with any preschool professionals, including those at the central office. Again PURE and others pestered Vallas and his top educational adviser, Lula Ford, for a task force meeting. They wanted to avoid another Headstart fiasco in which money was wasted in the cause of saving money.

“We absolutely agree with Mr. Vallas that not enough children are in preschool,” says Marsh. “But we wanted to make sure that valuable nurses and social workers who serve an important function weren’t just let go. We didn’t want this to be one of those great publicity programs where everyone says, ‘Oh, isn’t this terrific,’ and no one checks out what it means. I mean, who’s against expanding preschool? No one. But to have thousands of kids in deadly classrooms does nothing.”

Finally, in February, Ford put together a task force, which included PURE and other preschool activists. “Ms. Ford said they would have new classrooms opened by the spring,” says Marsh. “Some will mean an additional shift for teachers from three to five-thirty. She said they plan to open 37 other classrooms in the fall; they want to have 300 new classes–without new funds.”

But no one in the central office will say where the cuts will come from to pay for these new classes. “I expect there will be changes, but exactly what those changes will be we have to wait until they are determined,” says Velma Thomas, director of the Department of Early Childhood Education. “Mr. Vallas is extremely interested in serving more children.”

In addition to opening more classrooms Vallas plans to spend about $3 million on something called Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), which enables the system to save on teachers’ salaries altogether by replacing teachers with parents armed with easy-to-follow instruction books. “The HIPPY curriculum materials include 18 storybooks, 60 weekly activity packets, and 16 manipulative shapes,” according to the HIPPY flyer. “The materials are designed to enable parents with little formal schooling (even parents who can neither read nor write) to teach their children successfully. As the program progresses the parent learns new teaching skills and observes that the child has acquired new knowledge and skills. This strengthens both parent and child and encourages their continued involvement in the program.”

For her part Schwandt thinks at-home pamphlets are an inadequate substitute for classroom experiences.

On a typical day in her classroom, for instance, 20 or so children scurry about from project to project, gathering in groups to sing songs, exercise, or listen to stories read by Schwandt or her assistant, Lucy Iglesias.

“Preschool’s more than letters and numbers,” says Schwandt. “You learn about integrating in a group, sitting in a circle, taking turns, learning to express yourself. Everything’s hands-on. Children this age aren’t into abstractions. We use real items. If we want to teach them numbers we have them set a table. When they start they just throw umpteen forks on the table, no matter how many plates or chairs there are. They don’t have a concept of one-to-one relations. At the end they’re setting a fork before every plate.

“We don’t give them grades. We don’t shove information down their throats. We don’t concern ourselves with whether they can read or who reads what. Whether a child’s reading at five or seven won’t make any difference years down the road. These are principles of sound preschool education that Lucy and I have learned through experience and by working with other professionals in our clusters.”

Schwandt wrote a letter to Vallas explaining her feelings on these matters. The response, written by Ford, was noncommittal. “I keep wondering how they can expand the program and not spend more money,” says Schwandt. “Will it mean replacing teachers [with HIPPY], or letting teaching assistants go, or moving nurses into the classroom, or making teachers work another shift? As it is, Lucy and I teach two three-hour classes of 20 children a day. It makes no sense to expand a program by diluting it. You’ll wind up hurting the very children you say you want to help.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.