By: Theresa Hawley, Director of Early Childhood Transformation
I believe that every child should be able to go to preschool and have the chance to engage in the kinds of early learning experiences that we know make all the difference for developing school readiness and a foundation for lifelong learning. I’ve been working my whole career to expand quality early childhood programs so all children—and especially children in poverty—can have that chance.
I started my career focusing on children in Chicago, but about 20 years ago I started noticing the growing need for preschool and quality birth to three programs here in DuPage County. Did you know there are more children in poverty in suburbs in the United States than there are in cities? Unfortunately, we haven’t been keeping up in creating services for these children as the need has grown. Once I saw this need in my own backyard, I knew I needed to act.
I started small—I talked with people in my local school district, and asked if I could help them write a grant to expand their preschool program. Before long, I was bringing together all sorts of organizations—child care centers, churches, school districts, libraries, even the police department!—to talk about how we could create more early learning opportunities here in Naperville.
I was lucky to connect with the Gustafson family and became a trustee with their family foundation. Together we took on a huge goal—to build a model “center of excellence” birth-to-five school for children in poverty here in DuPage. We found great partners in West Chicago School District 33, and we were on our way.
It turned out to be much more challenging than we ever imagined. We hit all sorts of obstacles, but we persevered for more than five years, raising the $10 million we needed, finding land, getting the City Council and broader community on board, and overcoming some last-minute construction challenges. In July 2012, Educare West DuPage opened to serve 150 infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and it has been going strong ever since.
Since then, I have been working to bring equitable early learning opportunities to children all over Illinois. I love helping communities come together to build the preschool, child care, home visiting and Head Start services that children and families need.
Every young child deserves the opportunity to learn—I hope that you are inspired to get involved and make sure those opportunities are available where you live!
Talk with your children about what social issues are important to them. Then develop a process together to help them understand that change takes time. If you start with passion and a plan, the outcomes will be positive – meeting new people, building community, developing new skills, and changing the world.
Theresa Hawley has over 25 years of experience in developing programs and systems that support the school readiness and social competence of young children in poverty. She is an expert in early childhood development with broad, deep knowledge of effective strategies for supporting the development of children with high needs ages birth to five and their families.
As First Assistant Deputy Governor, Education, Hawley managed state education agencies and initiatives birth through college, with a particular focus on early childhood education and care. She currently serves as Director of Early Childhood Transformation in the Governor’s Office at Northern Illinois University where she leads efforts to reimagine and redesign how early childhood education and care programs are funded in Illinois.