Nation & World

In Chicago, advocate finds way to bridge gap for at-risk preschoolers

Ruth Kimble has been waiting a long time for early childhood education to have its moment, and now, she thinks, it has arrived. Across the country, voters and politicians alike are making prekindergarten expansion a priority.

That’s good news to Kimble, a 66-year-old grandmother of four who offers day care and preschool in a violent and impoverished section of Chicago. But it’s not nearly enough, she says.

Kimble has ideas about how to get society’s youngest and most vulnerable learners off to the right start. She’s carrying them out in her community, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s west side called Austin. On a very small scale, others say, she’s demonstrating promising practices for the nation at large.

Children of the working poor often spend their most pivotal years for brain development, birth to age 5, in government-subsidized day care in other people’s homes. So Kimble is trying to professionalize the day care industry _ notorious for its high turnover and low-skilled workers _ while making more academic preschool settings available to the kids who are served by day cares.

On an otherwise bleak swath of Austin’s West Division Street, a royal blue awning welcomes visitors to Channing’s Childcare Academy, named after Kimble’s eldest grandchild.

Upstairs, Kimble runs the Austin Childcare Providers Network, a resource originally intended for day care operators in the community that’s attracting participants from as far away as Wisconsin.

People who come to meet state training requirements at Kimble’s workshops discover a wide array of resources. For a small membership fee, they can call to learn things such as where to go to learn CPR and how to file for child care subsidies. She offers training in basic computer and financial literacy in addition to topics directly related to children’s education, such as outdoor learning activities.

Downstairs, about 70 children ages 2 to 12 pass through between 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Kimble operates her own day care center as well as morning and afternoon sessions of Head Start, the federal school readiness program for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families.

The Head Start room looks like many other preschools: One recent Monday, 10 children sat on a blue carpet brainstorming words that begin with the letter B. (“Boys!” “Beach!” What did the teacher just finish reading? “A book!”)

What’s different is who’s there: Many of these kids attend competing day care establishments in the area. Their parents work long hours and cannot take them to preschool classes, even full-day programs. Only day cares accommodate their schedules. So Kimble has arranged for the other providers to transport the children, with the understanding that she won’t poach them for her own day care.

Marion Young is one such provider. After getting help from Kimble in opening her home business, Young drives five of her charges to Kimble’s afternoon Head Start session. “Any questions I have concerning the business, she is there for me with concrete information,” Young said. “It’s not a ‘You owe me.’ ”

Kimble also has connected day cares with a local elementary school, Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. Spencer Principal Shawn Jackson said he used to view the day care businesses in the neighborhood as a threat to his Head Start program. But Kimble suggested a partnership in 2012, when he was trying to justify funding for an additional Head Start class, and the day cares began providing transportation.

Spencer quickly saw its Head Start enrollment increase, and in the two years since, the school’s kindergartners have been arriving more academically ready, since more children have had access to that early preparation. In the fall of 2011, only 33 percent of Spencer’s kindergarten students arrived meeting early literacy benchmarks on a national assessment, according to data Jackson provided. By last fall, that number had increased to 65 percent.

“She opened my eyes,” Jackson said of Kimble. He called her “the Bill Gates that no one knows about in early childhood education.”

Kimble grew up in Austin. She was the fourth of nine children, and her parents _ a domestic worker and a paper factory employee _ valued education highly despite lacking it themselves.

After high school, Kimble spent 22 years as a secretary and data entry clerk for the oil giant Amoco, working out of a downtown skyscraper. She sent her son to day care and considered it a positive experience, but she didn’t know the value then of early education. “Back in the day, it was just baby-sitting,” she said.

During a downsizing in the mid-1990s, Amoco offered laid-off employees the opportunity to go back to school, and Kimble started studying for an associate’s degree. Then her sister-in-law asked for her help opening a day care business. Kimble obliged for a time, but “it really was not what I call quality,” she recalled. Her husband, who was a correctional officer before he retired, suggested that she open her own.

In 1998, having completed an associate’s degree and advanced certificate in early childhood education, Kimble cleared out her basement and started rounding up neighborhood kids. She gathered other day care providers to form an association, so they could better themselves together. And she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. In 2005, she moved her day care out of her home into the building on West Division Street, naming the business after her first grandchild, a girl who’s now 19 and a freshman at Johns Hopkins University.

Right now, only a high school diploma or GED is required to run a home day care business in Illinois and many other states. (Two years of college is required to run a day care center.) But standards nationally are increasing, thanks to the federal government’s Race to the Top competition offering money to states for strengthening their early childhood services. The minimum threshold is likely to increase in Illinois, which won $52.5 million through the competition.

Kimble hosts workshops for day care providers two or three times a month. They count toward basic state training requirements, and, with a shortage of opportunities, draw participants from far beyond the original target audience of Austin.

At a recent session on outdoor learning, the 25 attendees were mostly women, ranging in age from early 20s to a woman in her late 70s known as Miss Ozzie.

The session’s goal was to get caregivers thinking about how to infuse learning and language development into everyday activities. Research has shown that children from poor families often start school behind because they aren’t exposed to the same breath of vocabulary and life experiences.

Holding brown paper bags, the participants trudged up and down North Waller Avenue, a side street off West Division, for 15 minutes to find items such as a rock, a leaf, a pine cone, a piece of litter, something soft, something square and something red.

Reconvening in a room with multiplication tables posted on the wall, the group discussed how to modify the activity for different age levels. They talked about other learning opportunities, too, from picnicking in the backyard to making butterflies out of pipe cleaners and coffee filters.

“Science is all around you,” said Camille Gant, a certified child development trainer whom Kimble brought in to lead the two-hour session. “There is learning going on at all times, even with the younger children. Even with the infants.”

Paulette Harvey, 46, is one day care provider who’s taken that to heart. Wanting the children under her supervision to learn all they can, she realized that meant she couldn’t teach them everything herself. They needed to go to preschool.

Harvey drives two of the children in her care to the morning Head Start session at Kimble’s place. One of them is Skylai Dakota Sanders, who’s 4. Skylai’s mother drops off the little girl with Harvey at 6 a.m. before a long day of full-time work followed by full-time college. The morning preschool program would be impossible for the family if not for the transportation Harvey provides.

Kimble doesn’t understand why collaboration, with its obvious payoff, isn’t more common. “It would be such a benefit for children,” she said, “if everybody was on the same page.”