Public preschool admissions, procedures and offerings have been an ever-changing process year after year. This year is no exception as CPS is once again in the midst of changes to their Chicago Early Learning programs (formerly known as Ready to Learn, Preschool for All and others).
The newest change is a Universal PreK (UPK) component, but CPS is rolling it out in phases, which further confuses and muddles the landscape.
This latest initiative was announced by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who left office before it could be fleshed out or implemented. While the intent was to have all 4-year-olds in Chicago eligible to receive free preschool (at a local school or community site) by the 2021-2022 school year, the actual details were unclear—and Covid has stretched the timing even further. Needless to say, the rollout has been confusing for many parents but the hope is that it will provide more opportunities for all students.
[Related: How to apply for CPS preschools]
The original plan was to have the first phase provide 28 highest-need communities on the South and West Sides (and one in Uptown) access in their neighborhood schools and nearby community sites. Then this school year, 35 more high-need communities were expected to roll out and, finally, in the 2021-2022 school year, all Chicago 4-year-olds were expected to have nearby neighborhood or community sites available to them. Due to Covid delays and funding issues, the actual timing is in flux. Read more at Chicago Early Learning & UPK FAQs. The original neighborhood phasing for UPK is here.
As background, preschool is not required in Illinois, but families do try to have their children enrolled in some programs for socialization or kindergarten readiness. Besides the myriad private options, there are several “public” options that are not necessarily tuition-free. CPS houses preschool programs in school facilities with space, and this past year many programs were through Chicago Early Learning, which had sliding-scale tuition for mostly 7-hour-a-day programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. These programs opened their applications in the spring and, as of now, there are still many available spots in various centers but that also has to do with pandemic challenges.
[Related: Preschool vs. Pre-K: What's the difference?]
CPS also hosts a small number of Tuition-Based Preschools that are typically popular with families whose older child attends that school (but there is no guarantee the preschool child can attend the same school for kindergarten without applying first).
CPS also has three tuition-free programs that begin at age 3 (Suder and Drummond) or age 4 (Inter-American) and the student can stay until 8th grade. These are the only preschool programs you apply to via the go.cps.edu portal.
With the addition of Universal PreK, the goal is to ultimately provide free preschool to all Chicago 4-year-olds. Unfortunately, the actual implementation has encountered some speed bumps along the way.