Congress approves increased funding for early childhood education

Reyna Terrell, a 22-year-old single mother, considers herself “one of the lucky ones.” At 19 when she found out that she was pregnant with her daughter, she was determined to not become a stereotypical young mother.

“I was scared I would be like one of my friends; struggling, living paycheck to paycheck, but I got so lucky,” said Terrell, of West Rogers Park.

She enrolled her daughter, Isabel Sofia, who will be two next month, in daycare at the Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park and a year later, began working there.

Terrell is among a number of young mothers who stand to benefit from a spending bill passed by Congress last week that increases the early-childhood education budget by more than $1 billion to $8.6 billion. The measure will augment programs such as Head Start and other preschool groups that cater to children from indigent families.

Studies by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that children are already behind if they come from low-income households. But early-childhood education for kids between birth and 5 years old benefit both socially and emotionally, researchers said.

Melinda Berry, a family support supervisor at Educare Chicago, a South Side school for at-risk infants and toddlers at the center of the University of North Carolina study, said fewer resources and less time and energy are some of the barriers she sees when working with parents.

However, she said once a child is enrolled in preschool programs, parents quickly use each other as resources in addition to the services provided through their day care program.

“It becomes more about [the parents] talking about their child’s development rather than just us teaching them,” said Berry, who is one of the Head Start experts at the school. “Social networking is a big resource that people wouldn’t think they would get.”

But Terrell said opportunities like hers do not reach every single parent trying to provide for his or her child. She said many of her friends work one or two jobs and pass their children off to “random people” because they do not have the same support as she does.

Lupe Narvaez, coordinator of the family literacy program at the Howard Area Community Center, said what it is most difficult for parents is making that initial “connection with child care,” especially when searching for jobs or education opportunities while unemployed.

Narvaez manages the GED prep and ESL classes at the center. She said that unless parents are employed or enrolled in school, they cannot apply for programs like the Child Care Assistance Program to fund the enrollment of their child in Illinois daycare centers other than Head Start.

 "You can't have child care if you are looking for a job," she said. 

Even with increased funding for early-childhood programs, Narvaez added that there is still no guarantee the over-crowded Head Start classrooms will have a space for their children. The UNC study found that only 42 percent of children in low-income families are enrolled in Head Start.

The Jan. 14 budget increase is “just a drop in the bucket for what’s needed,” said Jelene Britten, marketing and media manager at Ounce of Prevention Fund, an Illinois based research and advocacy center for early-childhood education.

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