The creation of an early childhood care support system that stretches across River Forest and Oak Park is a vision being led by Oak Park’s Collaboration for Early Childhood.

Members and supporters of the nonprofit group have been meeting since early spring to map out the new system and what it will look like. The collaboration is a network of more than 40 early childhood care providers in Oak Park, though they serve children and families in River Forest as well. The network’s focus is children from the time they’re born until they enter kindergarten. Those years, research shows, are the most critical in the child’s development, explained Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, the group’s executive director.

The goal of creating a more comprehensive approach to serving young children grew out of the collaboration’s 2009 strategic plan.

What that system will look like is among the things the organization and its supporters have been discussing, Newberry Schwartz said. The nonprofit group, through its strategic plan, identified four areas that will make up this system — parent information support and public pre-school being two key components. Professional development for providers and early childhood developmental screening are the other two components.

Elementary School District 97, the Village of Oak Park, and Oak Park and River Forest High School are partnering on the effort. Those taxing bodies currently provide financial support to the collaboration, which has talked with each about increasing that support to help fund this new early childhood care system. The preliminary estimate to launch is around $1.5 million, said Newberry-Schwartz, a former D97 school board member and president, who has spent a great deal of time writing grants for the organization. Other funding sources for the collaboration come from private and public donors. The goal is to have the early childhood care system in place in the next 3-5 years, Newberry-Schwartz said.

D97 has taken a lead role in the effort, hosting meetings at the district’s Madison Street headquarters.

“District 97 has always viewed the collaboration as an important partner and an important part of our community,” said Peter Barber, D97’s current board president.

Barber noted that several strategies listed in the district’s strategic plan — approved in 2007 and which Newberry-Schwartz helped craft — aligns with the collaboration’s goals. Extending pre-kindergarten services to more and the launch of all-day kindergarten at every D97 school are two such strategies, Barber said.

Officials from River Forest’s School District 90 and River Forest village government are not part of the discussions currently, Newberry-Schwartz said, but the plan is to include them at some point. The collaboration, she said, has looked at other communities to see if such a system exists and thus far have found none.

“Bringing together this broad range of services seems to be unique to Oak Park and something we can achieve,” she said.

Editor’s note: The Collaboration for Early Childhood recently shortened its name from the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education.

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