Public schools now admitting ... three-year-olds

Avalon Scharnek likes to be the first one in Ms. Bustos' classroom every morning, and the last one to leave every afternoon.

"She complains if I come to pick her up too early," says her dad, Lloyd Scharnek Sr.

Avalon is hardly your typical public school student. She's three-years old, and the academic experience that thrills her is a preschool: color-filled days of blocks, smocks, stories, and, of course, nap time.

This Chicago pilot program aims to make preschool available and affordable at a time when parents face waiting lists and steep fees for private preschools.

Educators here see it as a precursor to universal preschool, but others say the program has a controversial twist: a price tag for parents.

Critics have arisen on several fronts: Some experts question funding a new program when money is badly needed to help at-risk children. Some say a paid program undercuts the whole notion of a free public-school system. Meanwhile, private preschools worry about competition - and ultimately, about being put out of business.

But for many parents, the $5,800-a-year price tag represents a welcome discount from private-school options, which can run $8,000 or more. The school district keeps tuition down by covering the rent and utilities.

Moreover, some educators say the investment promises to pay big dividends, as better-prepared children move into the traditional elementary-school years.

"It's an excellent idea," says Barbara Bowman of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study on Child Development here. "It's a win for parents, who need quality child care, and it's a win for schools, who can make sure children have the preparation they need."

While free pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs for at-risk children have been expanding both in Chicago and nationwide in recent years, experts say the fee-based program is unusual, particularly in a large city.

In at least four states, including Indiana and Arizona, some districts have some form of fee-based preschool, according to the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Georgia has launched a universal lottery-funded program.

The grass-roots rise of these programs reflects not only the many single-parent or two-wage households needing child care, but also a growing emphasis on the early years as vital in laying foundations for learning.

In last fall's presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Al Gore put federally funded universal preschool at the heart of his proposed education reforms.

"[Expanding preschool] is a very laudatory goal," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. But, looking at the Chicago program, she's concerned that "it may be creating a precedent of public schools charging for basic services.... Why charge for preschool if it's part of the public school?"

Chicago school officials don't see any need to apologize. They say tuition allows the program to largely pay for itself, freeing up money for other early-education efforts.

But some activists say a program that currently has roughly 300 slots - a little more than half of which are filled - is a waste of funds and energy when more than 1,000 at-risk children are on waiting lists to be placed in the state's free pre-K program. And thousands more still haven't been screened for eligibility. "It's a question of priorities," says Lori LeBreton of Parents United for Responsible Education in Chicago.

Armando Almandarez, Chicago's head of early education, rejects the notion that at-risk children are being ignored for the sake of the middle class. "Our responsibility as a public-school system is to serve all children," he says. To make sure at-risk kids are served, one-fourth of the slots at each tuition-based preschool are set aside for children who qualify for the state's free offerings, he notes.

The city offers some form of early-education to 25,000 at-risk children, a number that will rise by 800 next year. The bigger picture for Mr. Almandarez is to get a plan for universal preschool in place within five years.

Mr. Scharnek, for one, has no complaints. "The fees are definitely very reasonable," he says over the top of Avalon's head, as his brown-haired toddler tightens her death grip around his neck. "We've had baby sitters who've cost us more than this."

Gladys Vaccarezza, principal here at Blaine Elementary School, says the preschool will help her ensure that children are ready to learn in kindergarten and beyond.

And while some of pilot program's 15 sites haven't been able to fill all their slots, the program is so popular at Blaine that Ms. Vaccarezza says, "I need another classroom."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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