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Few programs have been studied as long or shown the lasting impact of Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, which in 1967 became the nation’s first publicly funded education intervention serving preschool to third grade. Despite research showing its pre-kindergarten component alone ultimately saves taxpayers $7.21 for every dollar spent, the program saw years of budget cuts as Chicago schools prioritized spending to remediate older students. But it has been expanding again since 2012, thanks to a $15 million federal grant and a renewed commitment in the Windy City and beyond. The focus is on small class sizes, teacher training and a welcoming atmosphere that requires parent participation. Children can attend preschool for two years, beginning at age 3, in some cases for a full day.

Arthur Reynolds
Arthur Reynolds

The Hechinger Report spoke with Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development who has been following a class of 1,539 children from the Child-Parent Centers since 1986. He began as an evaluator and is now director of the ambitious Chicago Longitudinal Study, whose subjects are now in their mid-30s. Reynolds is also overseeing expansion of the centers in Chicago as well as in Evanston and Normal, Ill., and Saint Paul, Minn., with an eye toward making the growth sustainable.

Q: What were the biggest benefits to children who participated in a Child-Parent Center when your study began?

A: Initially what we found were big increases in academic achievement, in test scores in reading and math beginning at school entry… leading to achievement in reading and math all the way through to high school. As a result of those achievements, of course there were significant reductions in remedial education, and placement in special education was cut by about 40 percent. The rate of grade retention (having to repeat a year) for kids in the program was cut by about 40 percent. … We also saw a reduction in child maltreatment, which led to reductions in juvenile arrests. Adult outcomes that followed from that are increased educational attainment, reduced involvement in the justice system, higher economic well-being and earnings, higher rates of health insurance coverage. We found lower rates of depressive symptoms. … It had positive effects on parental involvement, too, and those carried over to these larger life course benefits and well-being that lasted into the late 20s and we hope beyond that as we [now] study the 30s. … The kids in the program had significantly lower rate of substance abuse in terms of marijuana and other hard drugs. … We may find that the full health benefits aren’t really realized until much later in life.

Q: What about the cost savings to society?

A: If you’re talking about just the preschool [portion of the Child-Parent Centers], the best, most inclusive estimate is $10.15 [for every dollar spent]. (This is the savings to taxpayers combined with a participating child’s increased earnings by age 26, according to a cost-benefit analysis.) If you’re only talking about returns to the public, in government savings, the number is a $7.21 return, based on an age 21 cost-benefit analysis [in 2012 dollars]. The total program, preschool to third grade, it’s [another] $6.84 in return for that. … That’s the value added by the continuity of the program.

Q: What were the key factors you found necessary to have this positive impact on children’s lives over time?

A: In preschool, class sizes are smaller [with a teacher and an aide for every 17 children]. … All the teachers were certified with a lot of background and training and ongoing professional development. … We had a balance of child-initiated and teacher-directed instruction. … Kids had an opportunity to participate for two years [of preschool, beginning at age 3]. … Parent involvement was required in the program, and there were tremendous levels of services [to families]. … The school-age program, most of it was smaller class sizes. Classes were limited to 25, and there was an aide in all the classrooms. It meant much more tailored, intensive learning experiences for kids in the primary grades. There was a parent resource teacher who organized the school-age program to provide extra support for parent involvement and also worked with the teachers [on] the curriculum. … It was a little bit less intense but driven by coordination by this key staff member and the small classes.

Q: What was required of the parents?

A: There was a requirement that parents endorsed and signed that they would participate… at least two and a half hours per week. There was an expectation up front, but it was also a partnership. … There were all types of involvement: receiving home visits, participating in workshops, GED courses. An agreement like that works if you provide the services and there’s a welcoming atmosphere, and all that was created. … Not every family participated a half a day per week, but 80 percent of the families participated on a regular basis, at least weekly or more.

Q: Is there funding for the new Child-Parent Centers to have all these features? For how long is funding assured?

A: It’s a five-year project [from 2012 to 2017]. The funding is used to ensure that all these elements are continuing. We changed the program in a number of ways to make it more effective given the contemporary needs and what we’ve learned about how children learn best and how to maximize families’ involvement. … The school-community representative is a full-time position instead of a part-time position as it was back in the ’80s and ’90s, to broaden the reach of home visiting. There are also extra resources to offer full-day preschool in sites that were interested. In Chicago, there were 23 classes [starting] full-day pre-K in 2012 for the first time ever. … We’re building more of a school reform model and teaching program. There’s heavy principal involvement. They’ve actually funded with their own dollars some aspects of the program.

Q: Was the original program a full-day preschool?

A: No, it wasn’t. It was two and a half to three hours. One of the strongest initial findings as we’ve done our [current] study in Chicago is the benefit of full-day pre-K. There were 23 classrooms that added full-day pre-K with dollars matched by the principals. We found [significantly better] learning gains compared to kids in the half-day preschool. … That also reduced chronic absence rates by 40 percent. This fall, the program has over 30 full-day pre-K classes in the city of Chicago. This has been a tremendous expansion.

Q: What was the status of the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago before this grant, and how are you rebuilding them?

A: In 2011-2012, the year right before the project started, there were 10 Child-Parent Centers that served only about 850 preschool children… it was only part-day preschool. … We increased the number of centers from 10 to 16, and enrollment doubled that first year. About 1,750 children were being served. … This year it’s going to be over 2,000. Including kindergarten and first grade, over 4,000 children are being served.

Q: The grant sunsets in 2017?

A: That’s right. … One of the goals is to plan a sustainability process so by that time, the districts would self-sustain all elements of the program, from preschool through third grade.

Q: Are you doing full-day pre-K in all the participating school districts?

A: No. Part of the challenge is capacity and space. Saint Paul has full-day pre-K in two of its five Child-Parent Center sites, but there’s a waiting list of over 1,000 children to get into the 4-year-old preschool program. … If you go full day, you’re reducing enrollment by half… that’s the dilemma. How do you address the capacity when you have a long waiting list? The pressure is to serve as many kids as possible with some level of quality in half-day pre-K. The Preschool Development Grants by the Obama administration are going to change that dynamic a lot because they’re only funding full-day pre-K programs for 4-year-olds. … That’s where the next frontier is, [expanding access to full-day pre K], and we’re seeing effects that warrant expansion in this way.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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