Christopher House (3255 W. Altgeld Ave.) is nestled in a quiet area of the neighborhood, across from a community garden and just far enough away from the bars on Milwaukee Avenue that it is never disturbed by that bustle and noise. The location is symbolic of the mission of this preschool: to provide low-income and at-risk kids with the resources proven to be beneficial to their more affluent peers.
The Logan Square location of Christopher House opened in 2007 but the original was founded more than 100 years earlier by the Presbyterian Church of Evanston. Its goal was and still is to provide stability, consistency and safety to a student body made up of low-income and at-risk children. Christopher House is a Head Start program, meaning it serves families that are at or below the federal poverty level. While most of its $16 million annual budget comes from the government, it relies on an additional two million dollars from private philanthropy to maintain its unique style of hands-on education.
“We believe having those resources embedded into the school is what makes us successful,” said Christopher House Director of External Affairs Penne Silverman. “We’re not only providing a high-quality education for the children but also providing their families with the resources that are needed to have stable home environments.”
The school has four classrooms and serves students from ages two to five. Each classroom has three teachers, making for a personalized learning experience. Karen Ross-Williams, the organization’s director of early childhood and youth development, describes the environment as “play focused with a homey feel.” The intent is to give the young students opportunities to explore, driven by their curiosity.
According to Ross-Williams, it’s no secret what works in education. Get kids as much personalized attention as possible as early as possible and they will learn.
“Day one we talk to our parents about what we expect,” said Ross-Williams. “Learning happens when the family is involved, so we really hone that skill for them like, ‘We need you. Together we make a difference.’”
Photos: Paulina Fadrowska
And administrators are noting that difference. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Illinois Board of Education, only 24 percent of children starting kindergarten in the state were adequately prepared to do so. At Christopher House, the numbers look very different. Out of the total student body, 87 percent of graduating preschoolers who have completed two years in the school’s early education program are proven kindergarten-ready in math and 76 percent are ready in literacy. When students with special needs are taken out of that calculation, the numbers increase to 94 and 88 percent respectively.
“We believe that children are capable learners, so we want to follow their lead,” Ross-Williams said. “For example, it might be having the alphabet on our bean bags, so if they’re throwing up a letter ‘A’ they see the difference between a capital and a small letter.”
As early as age two, the students are provided with journals to acquaint them with writing and writing tools. These journals follow them throughout their school career and serve as a portfolio and record of their progress.
76 percent of students are reading at grade level by the time they leave the preschool program. When students with special needs are taken out of that calculation, the number increases to 88 percent.CHRISTOPHER HOUSE STATS FROM ITS KINDERGARTEN READINESS MATRIX
Language is made a priority, both English and Spanish. A large portion of the students at Christopher House speak Spanish at home and some come into the program speaking no English. According to Ross-Williams, by the end of a school year, all students are speaking English comfortably, but students are encouraged to speak and read in Spanish as well.
“All of our classrooms have at least one bilingual teacher,” Ross-Williams said. “A lot of the parents want us to talk to them in English but we do encourage their home language as well so they don’t lose it.”
If one goal is to make the make the classroom more like a home, another goal of Christopher House is to make home feel more like a classroom.
“We consider the parents to be the child’s first teacher, so we involve them in every step of the education,” said Ross-Williams, “We invite them to come into our classrooms and read to their children and the other children, sing songs, cooking experiences, all of that.”
Students are given activities and books to take home so that even busy and under-resourced moms and dads can take on an active role in the learning process. Teachers and administrators at Christopher House have found that they do not have to beg or barter parents to do things like read with their children. They want to give their kids every resource and every chance to succeed.
Silverman believes that CPS could learn from their model. She said Mayor Emanuel’s goal of universal preschool is a step in the right direction but does not go nearly far enough.
“He’s talking about doing it just for the last year of preschool—we’re starting at six weeks,” Silverman said. “If you think of all the learning that happens between six weeks and four, there’s an enormous gap. If you don’t have kids getting a high-quality education, they’re going to be behind before they even start.”
Photos: Paulina Fadrowska
Ross-Williams echoes Silverman’s sentiment. She hopes for a future in which this kind of personalized approach to education is the norm, not the exception.
“I would like our early childhood program to expand into even more communities,” said Ross-Williams. “We’ve done well in Uptown, Logan Square and Belmont Cragin, but there are some other underserved neighborhoods I think we would do extremely well in.”
More information on Christopher House programs can be found at its website.