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Illinois State Superintendent Tony Sanders talks about the need to eliminate preschool 'deserts'

Kids at Taylor's Tots daycare center in Rockford
Peter Medlin
Kids at Taylor's Tots daycare center in Rockford

The Illinois State Board of Education is offering grant money to preschool providers to try to eliminate “preschool deserts” where there are little to no pre-k services for kids. WNIJ’s Peter Medlin spoke with state superintendent Tony Sanders about the grants. The deadline to apply for the preschool grants is June 14th.

Peter Medlin (PM): How do we focus specifically on making sure those resources are going to those communities that need it the most?

Tony Sanders (TS): That's exactly what we're trying to focus on with Smart Start Illinois. We're trying to close those gaps that exist. This year [the state’s goal] is opening 5,000 new seats. That’s the goal for early childhood, but over the next four years it’s to increase the number of seats by 20,000 and try to eliminate all of our early childhood deserts.

As you noted, we have places in this state where there's no childcare. It's not offered at the school district. And if you're a working family with a young child, there's no place to put your child unless you have relatives that happen to live nearby that can take them in. That is why we've put, on our website, a map that shows where the preschool deserts are across our state.

PM: Can we define exactly what a preschool desert is?

TS: Absolutely. A preschool desert is an area of the state with an insufficient number of publicly funded preschool seats to serve at least 80% of 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families.

PM: Like you said, there are some places [that have] daycare centers, there just might not be enough. There may not be enough classrooms, buildings, or teachers. There are some communities where there are no options at all. And not all slots are the same. There's half day or full-day preschool. Does [the state] leave it up to the organizations and the schools that apply for the grants to kind of define what kind of slot this is?

TS: We do. So, there are three different opportunities in this funding we’re offering through the State Board of Education. We have the Preschool For Allprogram, which is the traditional half-day preschool program most families would be accustomed to in their communities. We have a Preschool For All expansion grant. That's an opportunity for school districts and community organizations to apply for that's a full-day program for 3 and 4-year-old children. And then we have a prevention initiative, which is for students from birth to age 3, who need extra supports.

PM: When I talked to advocates, they say, ‘Okay, we've got a slot, but is it really meeting a need if it's only a half a day? And the family has to drive [a long way] to get there? And it doesn't work with their work schedule?’ They say that instead of just talking about slots, we must be very specific about like how it meets that need. Is expansion something the state is prioritizing at this point?

TS: We have funding available for all three, but we really are trying to push the Preschool For All, just expanding the number of seats. We know we can't do it all overnight, but over these next four years, we will get there.

PM: Do we have a ballpark estimate of how many kids aren't able to access those services because they either don't have enough providers or slots in their community?

TS: I don't have that right off the top of my head. But I have some examples. In DeKalb County, DeKalb CUSD 428, Somonauk 432, and Sycamore have all been identified as preschool deserts based on the need that exists within the community. Right now we have 124 additional low-income students right in that little area that I just talked about that are lacking services.

PM: When we talk about filling these slots, is the grant money used for more teachers or more classrooms or buildings? What does it actually mean to fill that slot?

TS: They're going to tell us what they need with those grant dollars. In some cases, it’s going to be for teachers. In some cases, it might be for facility rentals. The needs in DeKalb and in Sycamore may be completely different than the needs downstate in Carbondale.

PM: What does the research tell us about how important pre-k can be?

TS: It may not be necessary for all students, but we do know the impact that it has specifically for low-income students. We know low-income children are half as likely to start kindergarten displaying early math, literacy, and social-emotional skills that we would expect to see whenever they start kindergarten.

PM: What's something you wish more people knew about this topic?

TS: It's either pay now or pay later. There is a price to pay for every child we do not serve. Whether that's through social services later in life for some students or incarceration for students -- education is the best investment that we can make as a society.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.
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