New City Initiative Aims at Giving Young Learners the Chance to Thrive

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Illinois first lady Diana Rauner on Thursday announced a new initiative aimed at ensuring all children up to the age of 5 and their families are given the kind of wrap-around support services they need to ensure they are ready to learn and thrive when they enter kindergarten.

Research shows that early education and support – or the lack of it – can have a tremendous impact on a child’s development and even future college and job prospects.

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But according to data compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education, just one in three Black children and only one in five Latino children in the city are assessed as “ready” for kindergarten, meaning that they have the basic skills – social and emotional, language and literacy, and math – to thrive.

The new public-private initiative with nonprofit Start Early (until recently the Ounce of Prevention Fund) aims to develop a strategic plan to ensure that all of the city’s children are given the support they need to succeed.

“As a city, we must ensure every child, regardless of their ZIP code, receives a high-quality early education, providing them the tools and opportunities they need to thrive,” said Mayor Lightfoot in a statement.  “The Every Child Ready Chicago partnership is an investment in our children, by creating a system that, before birth, ensures our youngest Chicagoans are growing and prepared to achieve great success for years to come."  

Under the new initiative, Every Child Ready Chicago will convene leaders from early childhood programs, research and advocacy communities, parents and families of young children, along with city agencies, “to create a shared and inclusive vision of what a high-quality early learning system looks like,” according to the mayor’s statement.

“Research proves quality early childhood experiences can level the playing field and help children and families overcome many of the inequities that have been magnified by the pandemic,” said Diana Rauner, president of Start Early. “We are excited to work with the mayor to build a more unified, equitable and accountable early childhood system that prepares every child for success in school and life.” 

The aim is to develop a multiyear strategic plan to create a strong and equitable system where all children, particularly those in under-resourced communities, have access to quality services. 

“It’s critically important,” said Kristin Bernhard, senior vice-president for advocacy and policy at Start Early.  “We know that gaps in development begin to demonstrate in children as young as nine months, so we have a really early window to make a big difference. Access to high-quality early childhood education can predict later school success, high school graduation, college enrollment and even lifetime earnings.”

Bernhard added that research from University of Chicago economist James Heckman shows that the impact of early childhood educational deficits can span generations.

“The research on lifetime impact is incredibly strong and multi-generational,” said Bernhard. “We know that about 90% of all neural connections are developed in the first three years of a child's life, so it is literally laying that brain foundation for future success.”

Bernhard said that children without the kind of early educational and emotional support they need lag behind their peers in terms of educational attainment.

“There is always a chance to catch children up, but it only gets more difficult. If we can build that foundation and build opportunity gaps earlier in children’s lives it’s only easier for them to benefit from other experiences that follow. And as the gap continues to grow, it is harder to catch children up,” said Bernhard. “If we are serious in this country and this community about closing the opportunity gap, it starts before kindergarten.”

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