BRIGHTON PARK — A new early childhood education center is aiming to bridge an early learning gap and bring much-needed services to families in Brighton Park.
Construction on Gads Hill Center’s new early childhood education facility in Brighton Park will be completed in the fall and is expected open in early 2019.
Executive Director Maricela Garcia said the new facility at 4255 S. Archer Ave. will provide services to 125 children in Brighton Park, and the surrounding neighborhoods, “critical in establishing a foundation of lifelong learning.”
The organization raised $6.5 million to make the new two-story facility a reality. The first floor, 13,268 square feet of space with a nearly 6,000-square-foot outdoor play area designed by Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects, will be ready when the center opens its doors in 2019. But an additional $1 million will be needed to complete the second floor area for school-age children, which will accommodate an additional 50 to 60 children, Garcia said.
Garcia said the nonprofit made a commitment to bring an early childhood education center to Brighton Park following a pair of studies highlighting the need for these services in the South Side neighborhood.
The neighborhood topped the list of communities in need of early childhood education services, followed by Belmont Cragin, Albany Park, Chicago Lawn and South Chicago. New City, West Ridge, Gage Park and Englewood were among other neighborhoods identified by the Illinois Facility Fund as communities in need of early childhood education services.
The demand for these services has been a result of demographic shifts, with Brighton Park gaining over 10,000 children between 1990 and 2007, according to a study Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.
In a 2016 study, the University of Illinois at Chicago professor John Betancur and grad student Youngjun Kim found that while Pilsen remains majority Hispanic, more than 10,300 Hispanic residents had left the neighborhood between 2000 and 2010, a 26 percent drop.
From 2000 to 2010, Pilsen’s population plummeted by nearly 15 percent. The biggest drop — 41 percent — was in the number of families with children living in the neighborhood.
Garcia said that while 736 children currently have access to early childhood education services, the demographic increase has resulted in more than 3,000 children without these essential services.
Headquartered in Pilsen, Gads Hill Center has been providing educational support services focused on immigrant and low-income children and youth since 1898. The organization offers a range of services that include pre-school, home visits, after-school program, STEM and arts programming.
Since opening 120 years ago, Garcia said the organization has expanded to North Lawndale and Chicago Lawn. Most recently, the organization leased space in Brighton Park to offer home visits to the neighborhood. However, a growing interest and research showing a need resulted in a commitment to building a new facility.
Garcia said the organization has been internally tracking the demographic shifts prompted by the displacement of residents in the neighborhood.
“These families are moving southwest past I-55 to Brighton Park, McKinley Park and Back of the Yards,” Garcia said. “These were the destination most of these families from Pilsen were choosing, and these are the neighborhoods where we are seeing an increased need for these services.”
Garcia underscored the need to bring a greater investment in these types of services to low-income communities.
“When we look at the research, children from low-income families with no early childhood education start way behind,” Garcia said. “They enter school with a 30 million word deficit compared to their peers, who have had a high-quality early education.”
“For families in Brighton Park, this is a social justice issue, it’s an equity issue,” Garcia said. “The access to quality early childhood education centers offset the impact of being from a low-income household.”
“There is nothing more equalizing than high-quality education at an early age,” Garcia said.
While Gads Hill’s new early childhood education center will help alleviate the shortage of services in Brighton Park when it opens, Garcia said “it’s very important to not lose perspective” on the overall need for other facilities that offer similar services.
“Our center will provide a place for 125 kids…there are more than 3,000 children who are eligible but are not receiving these services.”
“For us, we are chipping away a little bit but by no means is this center enough to meet the needs of all the families in the area,” Garcia added.