SCHOOLS | May 18, 2021
When Principal Daniel Lucas started at Dirksen Elementary a little over a decade ago, his school offered just two half-day pre-k programs. With only 60 seats available each year, there were often more pre-k students on the waiting list than actually enrolled.
Starting next year, the school will have five full-day pre-k classrooms on top of its two half-day programs, allowing the school to welcome between 130 and 140 pre-k students to school in the fall. As a 37-year veteran of CPS, Principal Lucas has been part of the district long enough to know the difference early childhood education can make.
“If you walk through our school during the first few weeks in the fall, you can tell which kindergartners have been in pre-k programs because the adjustment curve is a lot less steep,” he said. “If you have a good kindergarten experience, you’re going to go up the rest of the grade levels smoothly. So, by the time you get to eighth grade, you’re still benefitting if you went to pre-k.”
Families looking to enroll their child in pre-k in the fall can use the Chicago Early Learning website to explore different early learning programs and submit a single application for up to two preferred sites. Support is available at a Family Resource Center or by calling the Chicago Early Learning hotline at (312) 229-1690.
At Dirksen, pre-k students will benefit from a modern three-story annex that was completed last summer. The annex includes new pre-k classrooms as well as a new lunchroom, library, computer labs, and science labs. Principal Lucas believes the new classrooms and other resources will help students adjust more easily to starting school.
“The classrooms have a really nice design and are a pleasant environment for our students to learn in,” he said. “I’m hopeful that, in the fall, we can start moving toward a traditional classroom setup again to encourage more open play and more rug time with their teachers and peers.”
As a former reading specialist, Principal Lucas believes that the early reading skills that students attain in pre-k can lead to more successful outcomes in later grades. This is especially important at Dirksen, a diverse school where many students enter speaking one of 40 different languages. All CPS pre-k classrooms use a standardized curriculum, The Creative Curriculum, to build an academic foundation in literacy and math and help instill a love of lifelong learning in pre-k students through a play-based approach.
“Our pre-k students really enjoy being here. They enjoy socializing with their classmates, and spending time with their teachers, teacher aides and other staff in the classroom,” he said. “The social-emotional experiences of learning how to work well with others and how to be a team player are just some of the additional benefits of being in pre-k.”
Pre-k applications for the upcoming school year are reviewed on a rolling basis, and the district strongly encourages families to enroll before the first day of school to ensure a smooth transition. However, parents should know that, regardless of when they apply, high-quality pre-k classrooms across the city will have availability.
Having more than double the number of seats available for pre-k students than when he started, Principal Lucas sees pre-k expansion at Dirksen as an important step toward meeting the needs of every student and every family in his community.
“The demand for pre-k has always been there, and my goal is to not have a waiting list at all. We want to keep growing academically and this expansion will provide a foundation for more of our families,” he said. “We will provide a comprehensive pre-k through eighth-grade education that helps students grow intellectually as well as socially and emotionally and prepares them for even better opportunities in high school and beyond.”
Have questions about enrolling your student in pre-k? Check out the district’s guide to the application process.