Barbara Bowman

“These people had done their homework.”

As the leader of early education programs at Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Bowman was invited to hear POWER-PAC present the findings of its door-to-door survey of parents in several low-income communities where preschool programs were under-enrolled. At the meeting, Bowman learned that the lack of transportation was among the reasons why children weren’t showing up. An innovative solution—walking school buses—was among the recommendations and a unique collaboration was born. However, the fledgling effort came with challenges of its own.

I got involved with COFI because I went to a meeting where they were talking about a report they put out. The report said that there were lots of children who were eligible for state pre-K and Head Start that were not enrolled, particularly in Englewood and Woodlawn and Grand Boulevard. I said, ‘You all could help us.’ And they agreed they could help find the children and walk them to school and CPS could pay to have them walked in. I had for a long time been wondering about the walking school bus idea.

We worked with COFI for three years. They identified the families; they provided parents to walk children to preschool. But we were not able to find a way to identify and target children who were really at risk and needed the walking school bus. If we had, we probably would have continued to fund it. But the children in the program for the first two years were not particularly needy.

Another challenge in working with COFI was that some of their door to door surveying was done anonymously and we didn’t have the names of families who were not being served. Also, COFI draws on volunteers more heavily in some communities than others, and that did not always coincide with where the greatest need was.

When families come to enroll their children in pre-K, we have an assessment that we use to determine risk factors. But for privacy reasons, we couldn’t then share that information with COFI. So they had to identify the people who had disabilities or who had a new baby or something like that.

I met with POWER-PAC mothers who were involved in making the decisions as well as COFI staff who were organized and knew how to run a business. The mothers were obviously learning from going out and talking to people and being involved. They seemed very sure of themselves. That was a useful experience. It reminded me of the early days of Head Start, where community action programs really empowered mothers to get out in the community and demand things and organize their response.

The first POWER-PAC meeting I went to was very formal—Roberts Rules of Order, people making motions. It did give you a sense of comfort that this wasn’t a fly-by-night group and that they were trying to get things done. I felt very comfortable that these people had done their homework. This was a well-organized group that had indigenous leadership, and people from the outside who were working with them, facilitating resources for them.

The whole point is the community presumably knows more about where the holes are in the system than people who just come in for the day. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything.

My concern was whether this was an employment program or a community change program. If it’s a community change program, you expect people to volunteer. It turned out to be a more professional, more distant kind of service. I’m not being critical, but it’s not a good plan to help people to find jobs and to try to influence the institutional power structure to provide those jobs. It was not like we were throwing money out the window. It wasn’t as worthwhile as I would have wanted it to be, but it was certainly worthwhile. But it wasn’t volunteer mothers going out, bringing in the children of their neighbors who they thought needed to go to school and their neighbor couldn’t get the child to school. I guess I started off thinking that’s what it was going to be, so when it turned out to be expensive and more about jobs, it became less desirable.

Part of what’s wrong in communities is that everybody is so depressed; it’s hard to find somebody that’s still got enough gumption and energy to want to do something like this.

I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Even when everybody wants the same thing, there can be a discrepancy between what you put your money on. I should know that, but that’s what came through clearly from my interaction with COFI.

COFI’s parent leaders were very sincere. They were very honest. They were very direct about what they wanted to accomplish, but not explicit about the employment component of it. I think that’s what accounts for the distancing and the fact that we couldn’t get people from the community’s school to be involved in it.