By Jamey Dunn
Illinois education officials have decided to again try their hand at the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program. This time, the state wants money to fund early childhood programs.
Illinois lost out on Race to the Top funds in the first two rounds of the program and is now competing for up to $70 million for early childhood education from the up to $500 million the U.S. Department of Education is offering to all competing states. The money would be spent to ensure that more children with the “highest needs” would end up in preschool programs. “Although Illinois currently has enough publicly funded preschool — Preschool for All and Head Start — slots to serve more than 85 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income families across the state, school districts continue to report that many children with the highest needs — those from families in poverty, with very low levels of parental education, and with multiple risk factors — still arrive at kindergarten having received no high-quality early learning services,” said the state’s grant application.
The plan calls for a coordinated outreach programs that start before a child is even born. “The state recognizes that its existing strategies are not yet sufficient to ensure that the most at-risk young children and their families will be connected to the services they need. Finding every child with high needs and connecting them with services requires a systemic effort that spans multiple service delivery systems — health care, education, child care, Early Intervention, Child Welfare, etc .— across the prenatal to kindergarten entry age span.”
Illinois set the goals in its grant application that by 2015, 75 percent of children with “high needs” would have at least one year of preschool before kindergarten, 40 percent would have two years or more and 15 percent would have five years of preschool services, including homes visits during their toddler years.
The Illinois Department of Human Services and the state Department of Children and Family Services are also included in the grant application, and some of the money would go toward offering wrap-around social services, such as family counseling, health care and mental health services, to young children and their families. Money would also go toward training and professional development for early childhood educators.
The State Board of Education also proposes that all school districts offering kindergarten programs administer a uniform school readiness test to incoming students so the effectiveness of preschool programs at preparing children for K-12 education can be studied.
The announcement that the state is vying for the grant comes as Illinois is still hoping to opt out of some requirements from another federal program.
No Child Left Behind, passed under former President George W. Bush, requires that all students reach math and reading proficiency goals by 2014. Assessment data released today shows that 695, or 80 percent, of Illinois school districts and 2,548, or 65 percent, of schools failed to make the 2011 Adequate Yearly Progress in student test scores required by the program. Last year, 51 percent of Illinois schools failed to meet the bar set by the federal programs.
In 2011, 85 percent of students had to have proficient test scores in reading in math for schools to pass. That requirement increased from 77.5 percent of students in 2010. The goals for high school graduation rates increased to 82 percent in 2011 from 80 percent in 2010. Only eight Illinois high schools were able to meet the standards in 2011.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last summer that his agency would offer waivers to exempt schools from stringent No Child Left Behind performance requirements. “Where there’s a high bar, where folks are really doing the right thing for children, we want to give them a lot more flexibility,” Duncan said when he announced that states would have a chance receive the waivers if they meet certain reform standards.
Illinois officials said they plan to seek a waiver. “We need a realistic, measurable accountability system based on growth and individual student progress rather than an absolute, unattainable goal handed down from Washington,’’ Gery Chico, chairman of the State Board of Education, said in a written statement. “Illinois will request a waiver that builds upon the board’s goals to better prepare every student for success in college and careers, raising expectations for all students and closing achievement gaps.”
State education officials saw at least one bright spot in the scores: progress on closing the achievement gap. Test scores for African-American elementary students have increased by 11 percent since 2006. Scores for Hispanic students have increased by 2.6 percent over the same time frame.