Preschool of Hard Knocks

courtesy Ounce of Prevention Fund

“It was simply a composite of everything gone wrong.” Portia Kennel remembers. “The neighborhood was on the worst census track in the nation. It had every single risk factor at the time…poverty, overcrowding, failing infrastructure. Poor maternal health was rampant and the infant mortality rate was equal to some third world countries.” But her face changes quickly. Stoic and strong, she says, “We had a goal to change that.”

Portia Kennel is the executive director of the Bounce Learning Network, which has established early childhood centers around the country. In Grand Boulevard, on 50th and Wabash, stands what looks to be a cluster of play homes and school houses, painted a light, dusty blue. In fact, it is a preschool center, built on a foundation of much more than steel and concrete.

In 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes (RTH) of Chicago were completed. The housing project, comprised of 28 high-rise buildings from 39th to 54th Street, each with sixteen stories and around 4,000 apartments, brought in a vast number of families. “After a while, it was just bad,” says Kennel. “One of the worst examples of poor people piled up on top of each other.” Lack of attention and weak infrastructure led to violence and gang activity in and around the housing project. As RTH residents carried on without the support they needed, social service and charity organizations moved into the area. In the early ‘80s, one of those organizations was the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

“While the conditions at RTH were atrocious, we were drawn to the remarkable resolve of the moms who wanted more for their children, and this was our motivation for staying under these seemingly hopeless circumstances,” Kennel explains. “People [from child health organizations] would come to assess the kids, and see that the kids couldn’t walk when they were supposed to. We all wondered why, but then it made sense–the mothers at Robert Taylor had no choice!” Kennel remembers. “It was unsafe around the complex and their apartments were small and crowded. There was no room for their babies to crawl and play, so they left them in the beds all day.”

In an effort to create a safe space for early childhood education, the Ounce occupied the basement of one apartment complex and the second floor of an adjacent building on 48th and South State Street. Karen Freel, vice president of National Research and Evaluation at the Ounce of Prevention, recalls the less than optimal conditions in the basement preschool at the Robert Taylor Homes. “When the sewage pipes would burst and flood the basement, the preschool had to close until the space was deemed sanitary again.” Freel recalls, “There was only a small strip of land between the building and the fence–that’s where the children rode their trikes.” The Ounce center worked to establish home-visit system and maternal health care programs, and to improve literacy and cognition among the children of RTH.

In 1993, the City of Chicago decided that the Robert Taylor Homes should be demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing. After the bulldozers worked their way down State Street, leveling the homes and hangouts of thousands of Grand Boulevard residents, gang territories got scrambled, families were displaced, and violence ensued. “Almost all social services left, but the Ounce stayed. We never, ever thought of leaving,” Kennel says firmly.

Staying in their location in the still-standing residences required certain precautions. “During those three years of gang wars, we had a telephone chain of key informants who would call us on a daily basis to report the incidents in the neighborhood,” Kennel says, with pride in the system that kept the children safe.

“Certainly, there were tensions. Once in a while, gang members would circle the building to make sure only their people were coming to the school,” Freel says. The Ounce would call the police for protection, but still they could not escape the imminence of danger. “We could hear gunshots all the time,” Freel says.

Plumbing issues, lack of space, and the constant crack of gunshots were formidable foes in the Ounce’s offensive, but the gang members themselves were not. “I know for a fact we could not have stayed if the gang members did not want us there,” Kennel says. “You know,” Freel adds, “some of the children we worked with were the children of gang members.”

The Ounce center and its programs were certainly upholding their goal of helping the new mothers and their children, but according to Kennel, “There just wasn’t the kind of improvement we were hoping for. We wanted to do better.”

“The conditions of that dungeon were not improving,” Freel says, referring to the basement of the Robert Taylor Homes. “’Enough is enough,’ we finally said. We weren’t leaving, but we had to upgrade to better achieve our goals.” In the late ’90s, the Ounce preschool took an eighteen-month break and developed ideas for a new center. This building would house preschool classrooms for both the birth-to-three and three-to-five groups. “We wanted a space just for the children. The parents wanted a space for the children. It had to be done,” Kennel says.

“We came up with a center-based birth-to-five program to set children on a successful trajectory that begins at birth. We decided to call the center ‘Educare,’” says Kennel. “We just needed to find the land and build the building.” The land was on 50th and Wabash, and architect Stanley Tigerman drew up the blueprints. “He presented color samples and design ideas to the parents so they could be involved with the decision…although he had already made up his mind,” Freel laughs. She explains the design elements Tigerman had to consider. “Of course, we needed bulletproof glass, but we also needed safe play areas and natural light without large street-facing windows.” Tigerman’s skylights and clean white walls maximize sunlight, while courtyards and enclosed jungle gyms allow protected play.

“When we started building our Educare center, parents who lived around it didn’t think it was for them. They thought it was exclusively for wealthier families who might be moving in,” Kennel says. In 2000, the Educare of Chicago opened its doors, welcomed its first batch of students, and initiated a slew of programs, including doulas, parent education, and teen-mother counseling. For the next ten years, the Educare center tested, improved and implemented early childhood education theories. Today, the center has seven classrooms for the birth-to-three group, which support 56 babies, and six classrooms for the three-to-five group, which support 102 children. In each classroom, at least one B.A.-degreed teacher and one aide from the community nurture and teach.

courtesy Ounce of Prevention Fund

Since the center’s opening, the neighborhood has undoubtedly improved. Gang violence and poverty have significantly decreased, but Freel doesn’t overlook each family’s struggle. ”It is better now than we started twenty years ago, but even with welfare reform, we still have families that go through a lot.” Some families are long-term residents of the five-mile radius that Educare caters to. Others hope to move to neighborhoods with better school systems. In an anonymous, open-ended survey collected by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, one parent said, “I’m going to make sure my kids attend school every day and make sure I move us out of this neighborhood that we are living in now.”

If that determination somehow fails, Freel hopes Educare’s family support will help place the children in better schools. “We really work with the families to make sure our kids go to good elementary schools, where the strides we have made can continue,” Freel says. “We introduce the parents to the idea of finding better elementary schools, and we explain to the parents the benefits of these schools. We guide them through the application process, we arrange visits to the schools–we’ll even visit the schools with the parents, if that helps.”

It does. Fourteen out of the 36 graduates of the class of 2010 matriculated into either North Kenwood/Oakland School or Donaghue, both University of Chicago charter schools with college preparation tacks.

Though hundreds of Educare graduates have been sent off into the higher level routines of morning bells and brown bag lunches, the Ounce of Prevention Fund research teams track their progress. “We are currently following 175 children. We track their progress on certain diagnostic tests” Freel says. With the data, the Ounce of Prevention Fund develops curriculum and policy initiatives. Already, unaffiliated studies have shown the benefits of early intervention in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In a 2007 paper in Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy, James J. Heckman summarizes his findings: “It makes sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments. Substantial evidence shows that these children are more likely to commit crime, have out-of-wedlock births, and drop out of school. Early interventions that partially remediate the effects of adverse environments can reverse some of the harm of disadvantage and have a high economic return.”

In the past few years, the cluster of play homes and school houses for the children has grown a seemingly incongruous structure on one side. In fact, the structure is a recently opened family center.  With increased family support, the Ounce of Prevention Fund hopes to broaden its reach. “If you want to integrate a community, better the schools, better the services,” Freel says.

The thirty-some students who will saunter out of Educare this spring, diplomas in hand, might be completely unaware of the 30 years that have gone into their shining moment. Even Freel and Kennel have to dig back to remember the details of Educare’s history. They are more focused on the current initiatives and their future implications. “If America is going to be competitive internationally, we need investment in our future,” Kennel says. “At Educare, we are investing.”