EarlyLearning-door to door

Fighting for access to quality early learning programs for all families

In 2007, POWER-PAC leaders launched a new policy and public awareness campaign, the Early Learning Campaign, focused on overcoming access barriers to quality early learning opportunities for low-income families. This campaign grew out of POWER-PAC’s successful work on the Elementary Justice Campaign and the concerns of parents that despite success in eliminating punitive, zero-tolerance policies in the Chicago Public School discipline code, too many children still face academic failure and discipline issues. POWER-PAC leaders believe that the large numbers of children not attending preschool can contribute to achievement gaps.

And research supports the parents’ concerns. Longitudinal studies show children who participate in high quality early learning programs are less likely to need special education, to be involved in juvenile crime, or to drop out of school, and are more likely to participate in post-secondary learning and have higher earnings. Access to high quality early childhood education is proven to be part of the path out of poverty and critical to avoiding the “Cradle-to-Prison” pipeline that catches too many of our nation’s African-American and Latino young people.

In 2009, COFI and POWER-PAC released an initial report on these efforts, “Why isn’t Johnny in Preschool?” which sheds light on the question of why so many preschool-eligible children are not enrolled and presents recommendations for policy changes to address these barriers.  Then in 2012 and 2013, COFI and POWER-PAC released follow-up practice and policy briefs, “How We Got Johnny, Jada and Jose in Preschool”. These briefs provide compelling evidence that solutions to intractable community challenges can happen when there is real investment in building leadership capacity among low-income parents.

Parent leaders created and then won funding for new programs that work to increase the numbers of low-income children enrolled and participating in high quality early learning programs.  Each summer parent leaders work as Early Learning and Head Start Ambassadors – with more than 340 parents knocking on more than 110,000 doors to-date – to reach out, peer-to-peer in their communities to speak with parents about early learning resources. POWER-PAC parents also created and work with the Chicago Public School to implement “Walking Preschool Buses” in 10 schools, where parent leaders walk preschoolers back and forth to school who otherwise wouldn’t attend.

Early Learning Campaign in the News

“Early Learning Matters”

“New Chicago schools program helps preschoolers get to class”


Background on the Campaign

  • In some pockets of Chicago, as many as 60% of preschool-aged children who are eligible for public-funded early education programs are not enrolled.
  • The effects of quality early childhood education include higher reading and math scores, higher high school graduation and college attendance rates, and lower grade retention and dropout rates.
  • Children who attend quality preschools develop stronger social and emotional skills and increased self-confidence.
  • Over a lifetime, children who participate in quality early childhood education are less likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system or become teen parents, and they tend to have higher incomes, lower crime and incarceration rates, and lower unemployment rates.
  • 90% of a child’s brain growth occurs before their 5th birthday.


  • Provide transportation to get children to and from preschool including van and bus service or creative solutions like Walking Preschool Buses.
  • Adjust preschool schedules so they can accommodate family and work schedules.
  • Support parent-to-parent outreach to families with the message about the importance of early learning and to help connect them to quality programs.
  • Fund home-visiting programs that bring resources, education, and support to parents and caregivers.
  • Reduce co-payments for child care for low-income families so that they can afford all-day combined preschool and child care programs.
  • Simplify the registration process and paperwork, make it more family-friendly, and do not require Social Security numbers, so families can register quickly and easily.
  • Help families who receive child care subsidies to understand how they can still enroll children in preschool or Head Start.
  • Create more slots for children where they are needed and support recruitment efforts where slots are not filled.

Highlights and Victories

In 2008, parents partnered with Illinois Action for Children and others and went door-to-door in 19 low and moderate-income communities to talk with over 5,000 parents and caregivers about why participation in early childhood programs is so low. Parent leaders organized forums in Englewood and the West Loop that brought parents, educators and policymakers together to develop recommendations to address access barriers. One long-time POWER-PAC member and mother and grandmother from the Austin community, was appointed to the Illinois Early Learning Council.

In 2009, the parents released Why Isn’t Johnny in Preschool?—a report that documents what was learned in parent-to-parent outreach about barriers to access and provides real-world recommendations to get more children into quality programs. That same year, they won funding from the City of Chicago to launch the Head Start Ambassador program, a parent-to-parent, door-to-door, outreach project to connect low-income families to early childhood resources and programs. Head Start reached full enrollment every year after the Ambassador project began.

Take a look at the 2015 Year-End Head Start Ambassador Report here:  HS Final Report 2015 final

In 2010, CPS agreed to support a pilot program for Walking Preschool Buses which in 2014 was expanded to 10 schools.

POWER-PAC’s recommendations helped Illinois leverage a $3.5 million federal grant that included funding for pilot programs in six sites to test out POWER-PAC recommendations about improving access for “hard-to-reach” families to quality programs.

The results of these pilots then informed the Governor’s Early Childhood Development office and the Early Learning Council as they have integrated parent engagement and parent-led outreach into Illinois’ initiatives on home visiting, Early Childhood Action Partnerships and, most recently, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (Innovation Zones) efforts statewide.

In 2012 and 2013, COFI and POWER-PAC released “How we got Johnny, Jada and José into preschool,” a series of policy/practice briefs that share the philosophy and practices of effective parent-led projects.

In Fall 2016, COFI teamed up with the Southside Early Learning Network (SELN) to pilot the concept of Parent Peer Advocate, trained parent leaders who connect parents of at-risk young children to resources for early intervention and special education services and assist them in navigating these systems. Read the full report here: PIPA Report 2017

Finally, most recently, parents have been successful advocates with staff at the Mayor’s Office and the CPS’ Early Childhood Education Department, resulting in better access and a streamlined application process in Chicago’s new Ready-to-Learn initiative.