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Bright & Early DuPage may invest millions in early childhood services

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 12:58 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 1:15 p.m. CDT

A DuPage County nonprofit has announced an initiative to bring together community resources in hopes of improving early childhood education in the county, starting in the Wheaton-Warrenville area.

The DuPage Community Foundation has formed Bright & Early DuPage, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children and families get the most out of early education resources that could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to area organizations in the coming years.

"We understood from our research that there is an enormous amount of resources out there in the community available to these families, but because of a vast number of barriers, they aren't accessed efficiently or fully," said Community Foundation trustee Joyce Webb. "We felt it was imperative that we help these organizations maximize their impact."

The Community Foundation made its announcement during a special press roundtable Nov. 20 at the Wheaton Public Library.

The first Bright & Early DuPage grant of $75,000 was awarded to Metropolitan Family Services to set up the Wheaton-Warrenville Early Childhood Collaborative. It is the initial installment of a three-year grant that, with the foundation's $5 million endowment, could turn into a quarter million dollars a year in awarded grants.

Theresa Nihill, executive director of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage, said the money's impact likely won't be felt this year by families, but as Collaborative Project Director Kathy Robson begins to set the groundwork for cooperation and fundraising, that could change.

The new initiative is a platform to get the idea of collaboration into the community and help leverage resources in the future, she said.

That could mean a much more standardized, accessible offering of resources for area parents and, eventually, the entire county.

"There's this assumption that if you're well educated, you don't need early childhood help [for] parenting," Nihill said. "And there's this assumption that if you're not well educated or you might be poor, you're not interested. And those are bad assumptions."

David McGowan, president of the DuPage Community Foundation, said the organization believes ensuring children have strong influences at a young age is important.

"I had a nurturing environment. But what if I woke up hungry? What if I woke up scared? What if I didn't understand what people were saying around me? Where is my opportunity for learning?" he said. "It would probably be pretty hard."

Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development, said about 3,000 DuPage County children are born to families below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level each year. About 6,400 children younger than 6 live in poverty countywide.

Stephanie Farrelly, principal of Jefferson Early Childhood Center, said that in Wheaton alone, one in four students currently come from low income households, up from only 8.5 percent in 2000. There are also more families that speak languages other than English at home than in years prior.

Families who struggle financially or otherwise can have trouble ensuring their children receive the resources they need to succeed in the classroom, she said.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said studies such as the Perry Preschool Project have shown children who do not have quality education during their formative years are more likely to engage in chronic criminal behavior.

He said law enforcement is obligated to be proactive instead of reactive on the subject, especially when it comes to spending money on programs.

"It costs $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone. It costs far less for a high quality preschool," he said. "You make the investment now and the dividends pay off later on."

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According to the Perry Preschool Project, those who were in an early childhood program were more likely to:

• Graduate from high school (77 compared to 60 percent) • Perform better on literacy tests at ages 19 and 27 • Be employed at ages 27 (69 compared to 56 percent) and 40 (76 compared to 62 percent) • Earn more annually

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The Perry Project also found that the economic return to society from people in an early childhood program was $244,812 per participant, compared to an investment of $15,166 – an approximately $16.14 per dollar return.

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Bright & Early member organizations include:

• Positive Parenting DuPage • Teen Parent Connection • Wheaton Public Library • Community Unit School District 200 • DuPage Positive Choices for Youth • Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley • Literacy DuPage • Wheaton College • Bridge Communities • DuPage Children's Museum • Western DuPage Special Recreation Association • World Relief • Family Shelter Services • Wheaton Park District • DuPagePads

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