By Ken Trainor
If it takes a village, Oak Park was well represented last Wednesday night at Unity Temple. Representatives from most of the village's civic and governing entities, along with a wide array of community stakeholders were on hand to hear a Nobel laureate in economics make a forceful case for the cost efficiency and long-term social benefits of helping parents and preschool children develop the skills needed to be successful in school and in life.
School superintendents Steven Isoye (District 200) and Albert Roberts (District 97) were present, as were numerous school board members from both districts. Village President David Pope and Trustee John Hedges were there, as were David Boulanger of Oak Park Township, Marty Noll of Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest, Rob Breymaier of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Mary Anne Brown of Hephzibah Children's Association, members of the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park, Rotary and the League of Women Voters. The Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Community Works Partnership was the lead sponsor.
But the impetus for the event came from the Collaboration for Early Childhood, which has championed this issue for the past 10 years. The organization's executive director, Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, said they landed James Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, through the efforts of a number of people, including architects Frank Lloyd Wright and George W. Maher. Heckman, an enthusiastic architecture buff, who lives in a Maher-designed home, waived his honorarium in exchange for an in-depth tour of Oak Park architecture in December.
In addition, the Collaboration's work is a subject near and dear to his heart. In fact, much of the organization's "blueprint" for a comprehensive approach addressing the needs of at-risk youth, age 0-5, is based on his research.
His talk was titled, "Investing in Early Childhood: Developing skills for a better future."
David Pope led off the evening by welcoming the audience – in Thai, a language he learned in the Peace Corps many years ago. He noted that the audience's discomfort and disadvantage was similar to a child coming into kindergarten and sitting next to a child with a 2,500-word vocabulary differential. As many have pointed out, the academic achievement gap is already well established by the time students start kindergarten.
Pope pointed out that 75 percent of the Oak Park police department's budget, some $14 million, is devoted to interactions with youth. Oak Park, he said, is a model for the nation, and the village in general continues a long tradition, extending all the way back to Wright and Hemingway, as "a cradle of innovation."
And there is no greater need for innovation, he said, than early childhood education. The Collaboration, he noted, has been working at this for a decade, and now is hoping to expand its efforts with a comprehensive approach that requires comprehensive funding from as many of Oak Park's stakeholders as possible.
Newberry Schwartz, herself a former District 97 school board member, summarized the outline of that effort, based on the group's 2009 strategic plan. Oak Park and River Forest count a combined total of more than 5,400 children, age 0-5, she said, and 800 of those children are defined as being at-risk. The plan addresses four areas: developmental screening to catch mental and physical health issues, parent education (providing information and support), encouraging professional development of the village's early childhood education and daycare providers, and supporting the village's publicly funded preschools.
The cost of the plan is $1.5 million annually, Newberry Schwartz said, which breaks down to about $280 per child.
Heckman, in his presentation, said that is money well spent because preventive efforts are much more cost-effective than remedial efforts. He backed up that opinion with a myriad of charts and graphs.
He put his emphasis on developing skills early – social as well as cognitive – which will pay major dividends for the society in the future.
The question is how to pay for it all. Heckman wondered if $1.5 million is enough, but Eric Gershenson, one of the Collaboration founders and another former District 97 board member, pointed out that the group isn't trying to do the whole job itself. It is trying to support and coordinate the wider effort.
The evening was a starting point, Newberry Schwartz said, for a community discussion that, the Collaboration hopes, will lead to a commitment that creates sustainable funding for their efforts.
Judging by the turnout, this is an issue that is now on everyone's radar.