Talking our way to better preschools


State, local efforts aim to improve quality of early learning centers


There is universal agreement these days that what a child learns in the early years-birth to 5-is critical to his or her success in school. But as yet, no one agrees what kids should be learning in those years, how to get them into a quality program, what constitutes a quality program or how you even get and keep good early education teachers.

Hoping to find some agreement, the state formed the Illinois Early Learning Council, a task force of policy makers who will address questions that include childcare quality, accountability and staffing. The group brings together early childhood experts from across Illinois, says Harriet Meyer, council co-chair and president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago.

She expects great things. "I've done a hundred task forces and strategic plans that go on a shelf," she says. "The difference here is every ... director in a leadership position is sitting around the table." It won't be delegated to an underling.

But this realization that communication is key to early education is not just being made on the state level. Locally, early childhood experts in Oak Park and River Forest are planning to bring kindergarten and preschool teachers together to talk about what children need to know before they enter kindergarten.

"There is enormous disorganization and little communication between childcare and early schooling [providers]," says Eric Gershenson, a driving force behind the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education.

What's needed, members of the group say, is ongoing communication between caregivers and educators to decide what kids need to learn before entering school. Then, they will develop training programs for preschool workers to help them teach those agreed-upon skills.

It starts with a Feb. 21 meeting, the First Early Childhood Symposium and Dialogue. The program is free and open to "anyone who takes care of children" in Oak Park or River Forest, Gershenson says.

Getting caregivers-from babysitters to storefront daycare providers to teachers in high-quality preschool programs-together with elementary educators to agree on kids' skills is critical, says Elizabeth C. Smith, coordinator of the collaboration.

Another key goal is to recognize childcare providers for the "incredible work they do," says Smith, who hopes this will be the beginning of monthly meetings between childcare providers and kindergarten teachers. The Feb. 21 kick-off is from 9 a.m. to noon followed by a free lunch at Dominican University, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest. For information, call (708) 802-5446.


Cindy Richards


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