Early education

One answer to Illinois’ dire preschool teacher shortage: men

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Child Care Society
Lee Tate is a master's level teacher who is popular among students at a Chicago Child Care Society in Hyde Park.

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.”

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.