Ideal Learning Providers in Action

Chicago Commons

Reggio Emilia-inspired learning on Chicago’s Northwest side.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Commons.

Chicago Commons, a Reggio Emilia-inspired program, is providing underserved children on Chicago’s Northwest side with access to developmental early education, helping to make Ideal Learning real for more children.

Chicago Commons has always been at the vanguard of early education. Founded in 1894 as a settlement house for recent immigrant families, Chicago Commons created one of the first kindergartens in the city of Chicago in 1897. Since 1993, the organization has used the Reggio Emilia education approach in its Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Serving 1,491 children from birth to age 12, 43% of whom are Hispanic and many of whom come from households earning less than $20,000 per year, Chicago Commons consists of four full-year early education programs, plus a network of 12 partner schools.

The Reggio Emilia approach helps children take charge of their learning process, enjoy learning, develop self-sufficiency, and engage with their community. As in other Ideal Learning programs, studies and activities are guided by the interests of the children. Parents, teachers, and the surrounding environment are all partners in helping foster children’s development.

Andrew Krugly, Vice President of Education and Program Operations, says that “children come to us as whole, capable people. We aren’t the givers of knowledge but rather pull out of children what we can to enhance their learning.” To that end, Chicago Commons trains teachers to be keen observers of their students and to set up prompts so that when children come into the classroom, they see something interesting to explore. Chicago Commons teachers help children realize their natural abilities and become lifelong learners and doers.

Recognizing the many challenges facing their students’ families, Chicago Commons and its partner programs have developed a number of ways to support parents and children. For example, children are provided breakfast, lunch, and snacks for free or at a reduced rate depending on family income. Therefore, learning is not inhibited by hunger or a lack of nutrition. Additionally, school calendars are designed with working parents in mind, offering programming from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm every day.

The results are encouraging in a state where three in four children do not have the comprehensive skills to be ready for kindergarten. At Chicago Commons, 95% of 3-5-year-olds met or exceeded expectations for social-emotional learning and cognitive abilities. Ninety-one percent (91%) met or exceeded expectations for literacy, and 85% met or exceeded expectations for math. Moreover, Chicago Commons’ Head Start scores on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) tool, which measures the quality of teacher–student interactions in the classroom, have steadily climbed in the last two years, far outpacing Illinois and national averages. Such measures provide evidence for the efficacy of the child-directed, adult-facilitated Reggio approach.

Chicago Commons sees its work going beyond children to have a two-generation effect. The school recognizes the importance of giving families access to developmental early education and the resources to promote whole-child development at home. In addition, Chicago Commons’ Family Hub program surveys parents at the beginning of the year to understand their personal needs and goals. Programming is based on four pillars: financial opportunities (i.e., budgeting, resume writing, getting jobs, etc.); education (i.e., digital literacy, English as a second language, etc.); health and wellness (i.e., yoga, relaxation techniques, etc.); and advocacy and leadership (where parents can learn how to advocate for their children when they leave the early childhood program). Through an initiative with Chicago City Colleges, Ounce of Prevention Fund, and University of Illinois Chicago, parents can also take coursework at Chicago Commons and complete the first six hours of an early childhood education program toward earning an early childhood Associates certification. In addition to providing parents with education opportunities, this initiative is also helping to address the shortage of early childhood educators in Chicago.

At Chicago Commons, student and parent outcomes result in family outcomes. Developmental learning does not stop at the door of the classroom or end when school lets out for the day. Chicago Commons is working to fulfill the promise of Ideal Learning by helping the most vulnerable families in the city give their children a strong start in life.