New unit will focus only on children's needs By Susy Schultz and Cindy RichardsPhoto courtesy of the City of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announces the appointment of Mary Ellen Caron to head the new Department of Children and Youth Services.
Mayor Daley takes a lot of guff from the media for some of his policies-spending $40 million to hire trucks owned by his political cronies is one such program-but we have long admired him for his commitment to children.
He solidified his reputation (with us, at least) as the Children's Mayor with his recent announcement that he would create a cabinet-level department to focus only on children and their needs-the kids' commissioner.
The city offers a wide variety of after-school and summer programs, but they are scattered among city departments, the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Public Library. Services that can easily seem disjointed to busy parents who just want to know what programs and services are available.
The mayor created the new Department of Children and Youth Services to address that need and serve as a one-stop-shopping source for all things affecting kids.
Daley is creating the new department by splitting in two the current Department of Human Services. The result, the mayor says, will be a department to serve families better because all the needed services will be in one place.
The department doesn't officially begin operating until April 1, but its new commissioner, Mary Ellen Caron, begins her job March 1. She has a lot of set-up to do, including finding the right place to house her offices.
"A large part of her job will be coordinating our youth programs to make sure they're providing the services and activities that children and their parents want and need–and at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers," Daley says.
"But I expect her to be much more than a coordinator. I expect her to be an advocate for children and for programs that will provide them with the best possible start in life-so that every child, regardless of economic, social or ethnic background, has the same opportunity for a good education and a good life."
Caron spent most of her career as a teacher and principal in the Catholic school system. In 2001, joined the Chicago Public Schools as a special assistant to Arne Duncan, the school's chief executive officer.
Chicago Parent sat down with Caron for her first media interview to learn more about what this new department will do for Chicago's children.
Here, in an edited transcript of our conversation, is her vision for the new department.
Q: First, tell us about you and your background.
A: I was a teacher of preschool, kindergarten, young children, all the grades, actually. But my focus was little children. I was a principal on the West Side of Chicago, then in Aurora as a teacher and a principal on the West Side-always in the Catholic schools. Then, I opened what was originally Old St. Patrick's School. We merged that with Holy Name Cathedral and called it Frances Xavier Warde School.
Then I came here [to the city's schools sytem] to be Arne's special assistant.
Q: What made you decide to leave the Catholic system and join the public schools?
A: I met Arne when he sent his kids to our school. We just had good synergy about kids, about what would be good for kids of all different types and shapes.
When he became CEO, I thought, "This in an opportunity to change things and make them good for kids in CPS."
I knew Arne's first priority would be the kids; there would be no question other than what's best for the kids. I knew I would like to be part of that.
Q:Tell us about the new department. What will it do?
A: We're still discussing that, but it's Homeland Security for kids.
The mayor basically is splitting the Department of Human Services so it deals with emergencies-heat, cold, homeless shelter, all of those things-and pulling out early education, youth services, after-school programs, KidStart, YouthNet, all of those things.
Q: What mandate did you get from the mayor?
A: He wants children and youth to be a focus in the city.
He wants parents to be able to access services for children and youth in an easy manner: He doesn't want them running from one thing to another. Part of his mandate was to work with the park district and the [public] health department and the libraries to get some kind of central place where parents can find out what programs are available in all of the different city agencies. He wants one place where he can find it and parents can find it.
Q: What age children will the department serve?
A: I would say it's birth to 18, but maybe to 21. There may be kids out there who need to be found between ages 18 and 21.
Q: Why did you take the job?
A: I really, really care about kids. I want children to reach their greatest potential in every area and I think this is an opportunity to make things better for kids.
I hope to be able to do what the mayor wants-[create] one stop for parents to find out where the drama program is, where the after-school tutoring is. But I also hope to look at early childhood programs and get them all to be following regular standards.
Q: This mandate that you have is wonderful, but it would be difficult in good economic times. How will you accomplish what seems to be a lot of extra things in this economic climate?
A: I hope that we can look at how service has been provided and maybe refocus how people spend their time.
My issue is going to be: How are we helping the kids?
If it's not making changes for the kids, then it's not very important to me.
Q: What is the budget for the department?
A: There is $4 million from the city budget and then there are grants that come from all kinds of places. I haven't had time to review all of those.
Q: How about the staff? Are they in place?
A: No. I have to interview them and find them.
Q: Where will the department be housed?
A: I don't know yet. The department is supposed to be housed at [the Department of Human Services] at Chicago and Ashland [avenues]in the old Goldblatt building.
But in order to really create a new culture, I think need to be separate. To start new, we should start in a new space.
Q: What message does this new department send about the mayor's priorities?
A: The mayor is concerned about the children.
I know he believes that quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. He lives that. He wants that to be our focus.
He sees enough to know that we have got to work on behalf of our children to help them reach their greatest potential.
Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent and Cindy Richards is associate editor.