Primary Focus

Appears in the August 2022 issue.

It’s as simple as the ABCs, really. Decades of research studies (and common sense) show that children who participate in early education programs and receive necessary interventions prior to kindergarten are more likely to succeed in school. While most parents search for the perfect preschool, many families of at-risk children don’t know about or have access to such education programs. 

That’s where Bright & Early DuPage comes in. As an initiative of the nonprofit DuPage Foundation, this program helps a variety of local organizations work together to improve access to early childhood education and support services for kids and families. “DuPage County has so many fabulous nonprofits for those at-risk,” says Barbara Szczepaniak, vice president for programs at DuPage Foundation. “We help bring them together so they can reach more parents and encourage them to access critical services.” 

Reaching those parents isn’t always easy. “A lot of at-risk families aren’t aware of the options available to them,” Szczepaniak says. “Through the initiative we help communities build collaborative systems to make sure children and families have what they need to be successful in kindergarten.  If a child has a developmental delay at three and they are connected to services, that child will very likely be on par with the average kid by the time he or she gets to kindergarten. However, if certain issues aren’t addressed within the first five years, the child comes to kindergarten and never catches up.” 

Besides the personal costs of falling behind, such gaps cause financial burdens for the community as well. “Ultimately, the school district ends up spending money on special education services for things that could have been resolved if they were caught early on,” Szczepaniak says.

The DuPage Early Childhood Collaboration is the countywide umbrella that works with local collaboratives. Six of those are funded by Bright & Early DuPage: Addison Early Childhood Collaborative, Bensenville Early Learning Supporters, Birth to 5 Community Coalition (Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, and Hanover Park), Glenbard Early Childhood Collaborative, Wheaton/Warrenville Early Childhood Collaborative, and Willowbrook Corner Coalition.

When trying to reach at-risk children, each community faces its own unique challenges. In the Wheaton-Warrenville area, for example, many children from immigrant families weren’t showing up for kindergarten until weeks after the school year started. Once the collaborative discovered that parents there were simply out of the communication loop, it began working with World Relief to ensure parents knew how to register their children for school. 

In other communities, language barriers and even fear can be issues. “A lot of people in Bensenville are undocumented and don’t want to be found, but their children still need to access services because eventually they will go to kindergarten,” Szczepaniak says. 

Regardless of these barriers, Bright & Early DuPage has learned to go where the parents are—whether that be food pantries, libraries, or laundromats—to engage with them and connect them with resources.

“Over the past 10 years I’ve actually seen the landscape of early childhood change,” Szczepaniak says. “When we first started, organizations were working in silos. Now programs understand each other and are working together. It’s really exciting. Investing in early childhood is investing in a child forever.” 

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Photos courtesy of Bright & Early DuPage