After years of home day care, Chicago professionals Chris and Sarah were excited about the idea of sending their 3-year-old son to a full-day preschool for the first time.
The husband and wife – who asked to be identified by their first names only – found a high-quality, private suburban option close by and enrolled their child to begin in August 2016.
But by November, the parents learned their son was having some issues and spending a lot of his time in the school office.
“Our big goal in sending him to preschool wasn’t that he would be reading or doing algebra or anything like that, but just to have a positive association with school and to learn basic social skills around interacting with the group and making transitions,” said Sarah, a social worker.
“To hear he was being sent to the office whenever there was an issue was just the exact opposite of what we wanted.”
The school told Chris and Sarah their son wasn’t interacting well with others, and was getting upset and refusing to settle down. The parents weren’t seeing any of these issues at home, but they wanted to meet with administration and discuss options for handling the issues.
The parents say that meeting went well, but following some staff turnover, things began deteriorating. They were called back to the school in January for two more meetings in which they said their son was described as “anxious” with an “explosive, unpredictable temper.”
Following an incident in which their son and another boy mooned other students, Chris and Sarah returned to the preschool in mid-February where they were given a choice: their son would either be expelled immediately or he could spend the rest of the month in the office with limited time outside and leave the school by March.
They chose to leave the school that day.
“I tried to trust the school was looking out for him and I should’ve done a better job for advocating for him,” said Chris, who works at a local museum. “It was embarrassing for us. It was traumatic for him. I just feel ashamed I didn’t do more to protect him.”
“It was so abrupt,” Sarah added. “One day we had child care and the next we didn’t.”
On Monday, the state of Illinois adopted a new law that will help prevent cases like this from happening.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law House Bill 2663 – legislation barring state-funded preschool education and early childhood programs from expelling pre-K students.
“The common response you would get is ‘Really, that’s a thing?’” said Ireta Gasner, assistant director of Illinois policy with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based early childhood advocacy organization that helped craft the legislation.
“We can’t necessarily – other than what the national studies have suggested – make a clear case about exactly how widespread the problem is. But the fact that it could happen means we wanted to be proactive and to have some of the policies in place to help minimize that possibility.”
The measure received widespread bipartisan support in the state Legislature, passing through the House on a 95-20 vote and the Senate on a 48-0 vote with one member abstaining.
On top of programs that receive funding from the Illinois State Board of Education’s Early Childhood Block Grant, the bill also affects all private day cares and preschools licensed through the Department of Children and Family Services.
It also tasks the DCFS with developing new rules preventing licensed day cares and other such institutions from kicking children out just for exhibiting difficult behaviors.
Rather than expulsion, the bill requires early childhood programs to document any steps taken to make sure children who do exhibit those types of behavior are still able to participate safely. If those efforts fail, it also allows day cares to transfer children to other programs, but only with parental permission.
Early childhood programs are still able to remove children for safety reasons on a temporary basis. But rather than moving straight to expulsion, they must instead address any challenging behaviors through intervention and community resources.
“We actually wanted to set out the best practice about if you have a child whose needs you may not be able to meet in your program – what things you need to have tried, how do you need to work with the family – really setting up a process to serve children well,” Gasner said. “Not just making the simple statement that you can never expel and never really providing programs the resources they need.”
The bill itself was introduced by Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, and state Rep. Juliana Stratton, the Chicago-based legislator who last week was selected to be the running mate of one of Rauner’s chief gubernatorial competitors, J.B. Pritzker.
“I’ve done a lot of work in criminal and juvenile justice reform and ways to try to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and I think what I found through the research here is that there’s actually a preschool-to-prison pipeline,” Stratton told Chicago Tonight in May. “Children that are expelled in preschool are, according to the research, more likely to be at risk of dropping out later in their schooling.”
Stratton appeared at the bill signing ceremony Monday morning alongside the governor and first lady Diana Rauner – president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund – who has also been a vocal proponent behind this legislation.
— Juliana Stratton (@RepStratton5) August 14, 2017
‘I’m a bad kid’
Following the expulsion, Chris and Sarah moved their son into a new half-day program, but it wasn’t an easy transition, they said.
“He really went through a very difficult time right after it happened. He didn’t understand, he wanted to go back, he wanted to see his friends,” Sarah said.
“As he would meet new kids at that school, he would say like, ‘I had to come here because I’m a bad kid,’ as he was meeting (students). And that’s just heartbreaking to hear that at 3 1/2, 4 years old you’re categorizing yourself as a bad kid because that’s the message that’s been communicated to you through this experience.”
Throughout the process, the parents tried to find out if something was truly wrong with their child. They went to therapy. They took him to Lurie Children’s Hospital to be evaluated. But each time they found nothing abnormal.
While they didn’t accuse staff at the first program of overt discrimination, they did believe their son's actions were viewed through a different lens as he was one of only two black children in his class.
“I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but I do feel that yes, something was going on there,” Chris said. “The impact on children of color long-term, the research says it's really bad. I’m worried that this will start the path to juvenile detention or some larger problems. I just – I worry.”
Despite a more positive experience with the new program, Chris and Sarah are opting to send their son to their neighborhood Chicago Public Schools pre-K option next school year.
Both said they were happy to see the state’s action on pre-K expulsions, viewing the bill as a positive first step.
“I feel like if it had been applied to our situation, if schools were of this mind-set that the quick fix or what’s easiest – to just kick kids out – wasn’t the route that they could take, then I think they would be more thoughtful about trying to support parents and bring them in and work together to help kids deal with these normal transitions,” Sarah said. “The things that are hard about being a preschool kid.”
Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson
May 11: How young is too young for a student to be expelled from school? A new bill going through the state Legislature would keep preschoolers from being kicked out of class.
Sept. 22: More than 96 percent of district suspensions and 99 percent of expulsions affected minority students last school year.
July 7: Why does one crowded CPS school look forward to a multimillion-dollar annex while another, just a few blocks away, fears closure for under-enrollment?