CHICAGO – Over one hundred early childhood and community leaders gathered today at a summit sponsored by Governor Rod R. Blagojevich and the National Governors Association to build upon the success of the state’s Preschool for All program and ensure that it continues to reach children in all communities throughout the state. Gov. Blagojevich recently signed legislation establishing Preschool for All, a historic five-year expansion of early childhood programs that makes Illinois the first state in the nation to offer voluntary, high quality preschool to all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want them to participate. Prior to signing this bill, he had made a historic $90 million investment to expand preschool to 25,000 at-risk kids during his first three years in office.
“Both science and common sense tell us that a good, early start makes a big difference in how our children grow up. Preschool for All gives every three- and four-year-old the same chance to begin learning early and to prepare for success in school and life,” said Gov. Blagojevich.
Under the Governor’s leadership, funding for the Illinois State Board of Education's early childhood programs has grown $135 million, making preschool available to an additional 35,000 children so far. “We’re off to a good start, but we can’t slow down,” the Governor added. “It will take hard work from many stakeholders to build a system that provides quality preschool programs to all children in Illinois.”
The “Making Preschool for All a Reality Early Childhood Summit” was funded by a National Governors Association grant and brought together stakeholders from around the state to further develop strategies for implementing Preschool for All over the next three-five years, including: 1) Expanding space capacity in communities; 2) Using best practices to meet the needs of bilingual and bicultural children and families; 3) Enrolling new children through effective outreach strategies; and 4) Helping communities to develop plans for birth to three services.
Preschool for All began this summer with a $45 million expansion of the Early Childhood Block Grant, which funds preschool programs and programs for at-risk infants and toddlers. Approximately 10,000 additional children will be reached this year, with similar expansions planned in each of the next four years until all three- and four-year-olds have the opportunity to attend a high quality preschool. During expansion, programs serving children at-risk of school failure are the first priority for new funding, followed by families earning up to four times the federal poverty level, or $80,000 for a family of four.
Strategies generated at the Summit will be advanced by the Illinois Early Learning Council, a legislative-created advisory board charged with developing a high quality, comprehensive early childhood system that serves Illinois children ages birth to five. The Council crafted detailed recommendations that served as the blueprint for the Governor’s Preschool for All initiative, which passed the General Assembly with strong bi-partisan support last May.
“Thanks to the Governor and General Assembly, the resources for early childhood education in Illinois are expanding rapidly,” said Elliot Regenstein, co-chair of the Early Learning Council. “The Council has been devoted to ensuring that those resources are used effectively, and today will help us to address some of the challenges that must be overcome to guarantee continued success."
Summit participants prepared for today’s working session by reviewing issue briefs on each of the four topics. These papers summarized past efforts, examined research and framed the key issues to be addressed. For example, as Preschool for All grows to meet heavy demand, communities must maximize existing facilities and find creative ways to offer services where families need them, such as by promoting partnerships between school systems and child care centers, or by building child care networks that share a certified preschool teacher.
Similarly, the diversification of Illinois communities requires strategies to develop qualified bilingual teachers and curriculum to meet the needs of new Americans, and provides an opportunity to dramatically expand services in traditionally underserved communities. As Preschool for All expands, a more robust system of outreach and information dissemination is needed to ensure that families are able to take full advantages of available services. Finally, since Preschool for All commits 11 cents of every preschool dollar to infants and toddlers facing the steepest challenges, careful planning is needed to ensure these programs reach all Illinois communities.
The Illinois Preschool for All initiative has earned national recognition for its comprehensive scope and practical approach of building upon the proven framework of its existing State Pre-Kindergarten program. Dozens of stakeholders took part in the Early Learning Council’s efforts to develop Preschool for All. Along with Elliot Regenstein, the Council is co-chaired by Harriet Meyer, President of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
"We are pleased to have the opportunity to support Gov. Blagojevich in hosting a summit on early childhood," said John Thomasian, Director the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. "Illinois is the first state to begin implementing a program to offer quality preschool to all three- and four-year-old children. Governors from around the country will benefit from Illinois' leadership."
“This summit brings together people who care about doing the right thing for our youngest learners,” said Jesse H. Ruiz, Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. “We have to build on the progress we’ve already made through the Governor’s commitment to early childhood education. Our next steps are to make sure Preschool for All expands on the success of the last four years by giving every kid a great start in lifelong learning.”
The Illinois Early Learning Council was created with bi-partisan legislative support in 2003, and appointments to the Council are made by the Governor and leaders of the Illinois General Assembly. Its 50 members include early childhood practitioners, policymakers, civic and business leaders, advocates and representatives from state agencies. In addition, several standing committees develop detailed recommendations addressing a wide range of topics and provide a forum for participation by more than 200 additional stakeholders.