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First-of-its-kind early childhood center faces vote in West Chicago
By Anna Madrzyk | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/30/2010 12:27 PM

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When plans for a state-of-the-art early childhood center in West Chicago were announced two years ago, the city put out a glowing news release.

A proud Mayor Mike Kwasman praised the "innovative community programming" that would be "a model for other communities."

The West Chicago preschool - funded largely by private dollars from the DuPage-based Gustafson Family Foundation and such heavy hitters as the Pritzker, Buffet and McCormick foundations - would be the first Educare center in the nation in a suburban community. The center would provide high-quality, year-round preschool for 150 at-risk children who live in West Chicago Elementary District 33.

It seemed like a slam dunk - until the city's plan commission unexpectedly threw a wrench in the process.

Two weeks ago, the panel voted to deny the rezoning request and special-use permit, while approving three other measures needed for the school to move forward.

The city council votes Monday on the project, including the sale of the land to West Chicago Elementary District 33. The city's development committee has already recommended approval.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. at village hall, 475 Main Street.

Supporters mobilized quickly after the plan commission denial.

"We are all out to bring this to West Chicago," said District 33 Superintendent Ed Leman. "We believe it will be a fabulous benefit for the community."

If the city council gives the go-ahead, Educare of West Dupage expects to break ground about Sept. 1 on the 24,000-square-foot building at Forest Avenue and Pearl Street next to Pioneer Park. The school would open in August 2011.

The preschool would serve children from birth to kindergarten age who have been identified as at risk of trailing behind because of such factors as coming from low-income families, teen parents or they do not speak English. In West Chicago, 25 percent of children 5 and younger live in poverty.

The Educare model was developed by the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund. Classes are taught by teachers with bachelor's degrees. Parents are required to be involved and accountable.

Nationwide, there are 11 Educare centers, including one on Chicago's South side. The agency looked at a number of communities in DuPage County before choosing West Chicago as its first suburban site.

"The reason we chose West Chicago is it had such a great history of partnerships among different organizations serving the same families," said Theresa Hawley, project director and board chair for Educare of West DuPage.

"That's not the case in a lot of communities."

The center serves families with parents who are working or in school. Tentative hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Drop-off and pickup is staggered, and parents are required to park and come inside.

"(The increase in traffic) will not be at one point in time like school ending," said City Administrator Michael Guttman. "Traffic will be more spread out."

Plan commissioners expressed concerns about traffic when they denied the rezoning request. Several residents also spoke against the project for various reasons, including a concern that access to full-day care might encourage teen pregnancy.

Under an innovative public/private partnership, Dist. 33's investment is limited to the cost of the land ($230,000) and improvements as well as ongoing building maintenance. Educare of West DuPage will pay to build the $10 million school and run the program.

"This is really incredible bang for our buck in terms of district dollars," said Sue Stibal, a District 33 board member.

The project comes at a time when District 33 has been forced to cut back its preschool program because of declines in state funding. Instead of 400 children, the district next year will be able to provide preschool for about 70 children identified as needing special education and 80 at-risk children. If more state money becomes available, "then we'll ramp up our program," Leman said.

A supermajority - 10 of 14 city council members - will be needed to approve the land sale and the items denied by the plan commission.