Could a community create a “comprehensive plan” that would cultivate the development and growth of its valuable assets, other than property — namely its children? 

It’s an intriguing idea, said River Forest Village President Catherine Adduci, an early childhood advocate. It could set into motion a community-wide collaboration that in the end would advance the quality of life for youngsters, their families, and River Forest.

Like its land-use counterpart, this plan would need information. Early childhood advocates believe the best instrument for that is the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a reliable, valid survey that has influenced a wide array of programs and services from determining the placement of new preschool programs in Calhoun, Michigan to improving collaboration between public and private schools in Cincinnati.  

Gathering data on all River Forest kindergartners attending public and private schools would be the starting point. But that won’t happen, at least this year, because District 90, a key player in the discussion, has decided not to take part.

Board President Patrick Meyer cited constraints on teacher time and relevance of the study as influences in the board’s recent decision. Principals at Willard and Lincoln schools were consulted beforehand but not the teachers. 

The groups that would have partnered with the district are the Collaboration for Early Childhood and the Erikson Institute, an organization that conducts research and training on early childhood development. But neither were invited to discuss this before the school board, said the Collaboration’s executive director, Carolyn Newberry Schwartz.

Instead, Meyer and D90 Supt. Ed Condon addressed a presentation they attended last month with Newberry Schwartz and Geoff Nagle, Erikson’s president and chief executive officer. Adduci, who for nearly 20 years has served on Erikson’s board of directors, a non-paying position, also took part. 

Had this gone forward, kindergarten teachers would have been trained by Erikson on how to use the EDI. Teachers would conduct a 104-item observational survey that would assess youngsters in the areas of social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, physical health and well-being and communication skills. Teachers would have been compensated for their work, roughly 15 minutes per child plus training time, said Newberry Schwartz, whose organization promotes the successful development of children from birth to age 5. No district funds would have been needed to conduct any phase of the assessment. 

Erikson would have analyzed the data and  would present a more informed picture of how all children in River Forest were developing, said Newberry Schwartz, noting that Nagle expressed interest in conducting the EDI in the Oak Park area, in part because of the Collaboration’s reputation. Because the information would have benefitted Oak Park and River Forest High School in the long run, D90 officials last month took part in the discussion about EDI. 

Meyer said that while it seemed interesting, there are other pressures on teachers. He cited efforts related to Common Core. In addition, D90 is piloting the state-mandated Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS).

In KIDS, teachers three times a year make note of a wide range of children’s classroom work from interactions with their peers to artwork. Each piece of data is recorded in a pertinent category, such as cognitive development or peer interaction. A report on each individual child’s academic, emotional and behavioral progress is made and is used to help improve classroom instruction and guide professional development. Felicia Starks Turner, Oak Park District 97’s director of administrative services who has overseen KIDS for three years now, said it can be overwhelming, especially as teachers have to make sure they are interpreting the data the same way.

Newberry Schwartz, a former president of the D97 school board, said KIDS has real value but it is a different assessment from the EDI and serves a different purpose. KIDS enables teachers to assess the growth of individual children in their classrooms throughout the kindergarten year. The EDI, she notes, provides a snapshot of children’s development for the entire population of kindergartners, and is conducted every 2-3 years.

Meyer said he wasn’t sure how this would all apply to D90. The results of a study presented during that session came from a rural area in northern Louisiana. That system dealt with the type of serious issues that River Forest doesn’t address, such as teen pregnancy and various forms of severe poverty. He saw the benefit for a similarly situated district in the Chicago area or another large metropolitan area.  

“This is not the district we live in,” he said. “We do have people who need some special help, but it’s a small enough segment that we have our arms around that.”

Newberry Schwartz said EDI has been shown to provide meaningful information that different types of communities across the country and around the world have used to ensure they have the right programs and resources in place to support children’s early development.

Adduci acknowledged that balancing one’s time working on and completing projects is difficult.

Yet “the EDI tool and the data that are gathered is not about who is poor or rich, or about affluence. It’s about our children and our community. It is necessary for River Forest to catch any aggregate developmental issues before our children reach kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten. And as a community leader I’d like to be sure that residents with children are getting the resources they deserve,” she said.

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