Giving a brief tour of her Hyde Park childcare center on a cold recent morning, Chicago Child Care Society CEO Dara Munson stops by a classroom where a dozen or so small children are lined up in parkas, mittens, and winter hats. Like a line of colorful padded ducks, they eagerly trail one of the lead teachers — a tall man named Lee Tate — out toward the playground.

“They love him,” Munson whispered.

Across town a few weeks later, Dexter Smith, the director of the Truman College Child Development Lab School, describes with similar enthusiasm the way children at his center embraced a part-time male staffer. When that employee left the three-classroom center to pursue a full-time job at a private preschool, his staff was again all-female, with one notable exception: himself.

“Men interact differently with children, they can be more playful, more interactive, more willing to tumble them upside down,” he said. “Women don’t typically do that.”

Turnover, shortages, low pay: Advocates, daycare owners, and educators have sounded alarm bells lately over the dire preschool teacher shortage in Illinois — an issue that’s growing ever more critical in the wake of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for universal pre-K. The challenges of low wages, burnout, and churn have become persistent impediments to full staffing.

Related: One business owner’s view from the child care trenches in Illinois

Perhaps one overlooked solution: men — particularly men of color. In Illinois, women predominantly make up the early education workforce, with men counting for fewer than 2 percent of licensed teachers in certified childcare centers and only 20 percent of teaching assistants, according to a 2017 report from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

That percentage drops even more dramatically when you consider men of color in classrooms, said Shawn Jackson, a former science teacher and elementary school principal in Chicago Public Schools who now runs Harry S. Truman, one of the city’s seven community colleges.  “When I started thinking about how we can find ways to encourage more men of color to get into classrooms, I thought about the lack of tangible role models who are there every day.”

These observations, coupled with forecasts of how many teachers will be needed in the future to power schools in the Chicago area and beyond, have helped fuel a “Men of Color” teacher training program.

Besides aiding classrooms, the program also addresses a dire need for training and jobs. A startling 47 percent of black men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago were out of school and out of work in 2014, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute that has had widespread policy repercussions.

A group of educators led by Jackson created the “Men of Color” program, which combines coursework toward a certificate or two-year-degree, mentoring, and paid internships. Jackson helped recruit 15 male Chicago principals and teachers to serve as mentors — a key tenet of the program.

“If you’ve ever seen a man of color walk into an early childhood classroom, he’s a superstar,” said Jackson, who is building three paths for potential teachers. For high schoolers, a dual-credit program offers simultaneous credit toward graduation and a two-year degree. For city college students and community members, the city offers a scholarship for prospective early educators, drawn from a mayor’s office fund expected to double to $4 million this year.

The Men of Color program isn’t solely focused on early childhood education — there are tracks, too, for elementary and high school. But in the first Men of Color pilot of 33 students, 23 have signed up for the early education program.

That’s encouraging news for Kate Connor, Truman College’s recently appointed vice president.

“We’re training a huge part of the early childhood workforce,” said Connor, who described a strong system of “on- and off-ramps” that help nudge students toward completion. (Like community colleges across the country, Chicago City Colleges has struggled with low completion rates; the system reported 22 percent completion in 2018.)

“Rarely does someone come in without some experience in the field — they’ve cared for kids in their home or cared for family members,” she said. If Connor, who has taught in the early education division, and her team can get them to take one class, and help address “confidence challenges,” she said, “we can start getting them invested.”

Getting them invested means more than coursework: The Truman team plan to ease students along with paid internships, support with basics such as English and math for those whose skills are weak, financial assistance, and, for students like Billy Hubbert who want to “go all the way” — that is, gain entrance into a four-year-degree program, which can be a roadblock to many students seeking full credentialing in Illinois — ACT prep.

The Hirsch High School graduate, 43, had been driving Lyft and working in a private child care center as a substitute. He said he’s not deterred by the potential of low pay that tends to be a constant in early education — nor that his early education courses have been predominantly female.

“I can count on one hand the number of male teachers I had growing up — mainly gym teachers and coaches  — and there are a lot of women in the courses I’m taking now,” he said. “The program helps me feel like I’m not in a silo. I’m not all by myself.”