BACK OF THE YARDS — Peer inside a few of the classrooms inside the Paulo Freire Family Center and you’ll find women feeding bottles to babies and toddlers exploring their surroundings.
Outside, kids clomp around the “natural playground,” with its winding pathway, grassy hills and big stone boulder.
“Our role is to ensure this is a safe place. We’re not a community center that can open its doors to everybody, but we are a safe place for people to be,” said Nilda Vargas, site director for the facility, 1653 W. 43rd St.
Opened in 2001, the Freire center, named after the influential Brazilian educator, is operated by Chicago Commons, a group that offers a wide range of resources for residents in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, from early childhood education programs to adult day care for the elderly.
Vargas said the center and its federally funded education programs have been a “safe haven” in the neighborhood, which has been racked by gang violence, including a mass shooting in September that left 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy, injured with bullet wounds.
Earlier this year, a shooting took place about a block away during a daytime meeting with parents at the school, Vargas said.
Like the other three family centers operated by Chicago Commons, the Back of the Yards facility operates under the Reggio Emilia approach to education, a method that prioritizes a child’s involvement in their school surroundings, makes teachers "co-collaborators" and encourages parental involvement.
The building's hallways are lined with kids' “experience” projects, like a colorful canvas painted by brooms and art projects made from recycled materials.
The goal is to make the toddlers “school ready," and Chicago Commons leaders boast of the percentage of their students who've met or exceeded expectations for "kindergarten readiness."
But beyond the Freire center's academic components, community leaders and parents say the center can serve as a conduit to broader social success.
"We have certain values and beliefs about community engagement and family engagement and supporting children as capable individuals and setting the foundation for them to become great citizens. That tends to not be a component of elementary school because it's all rote learning. What we're doing is opening possibilities to them to be those who think outside the box," said Janice Woods, coordinator of child development programs for Chicago Commons.
Yuridaina Garrido is a part-time small business administrator getting by on her $13,000 annual income.
After enrolling her 4-year-old daughter in the early childhood program last year, the 30-year-old Back of the Yards resident said she's seen nothing but positive developments.
"I really love it because it has stimulated cause-and-effect learning as well as problem solving. And [my daughter] can have conversations about that," she said.
The benefits aren't only for the kids, she said. Parents are invited to health and wellness workshops and a seminars hosted by the Chicago Public Library.
"I think that it helps us come together and learn different ways of coping academically. ... [The school] is really inclined to bring the community together as a family," she said.
The center also houses a CPS-funded after-school program that invites kids for activities and homework help, offers a prenatal program offering resources to pregnant women and hires elderly workers to help out in the classrooms.
Craig Chico, who leads the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, said kids in the community are “already behind the 8-ball with language challenges, economics and their support network.
“You don’t have this problem in upper and more affluent communities. Here in this community, it’s all people have,” said Chico, who sits on the board of a similar early childhood effort called El Valor.
Equally troubling, community leaders say, is that most of the center’s programs are funded by the federal government’s Early Head Start and Head Start initiatives and could be at risk because of budget cuts.
Across the country, some Head Start programs were temporarily shuttered during the federal government shutdown, and budget cuts from “sequestration” have forced the Department of Health and Human Services to boot nearly 60,000 kids from Head Start, according to stats from the National Head Start Association.
Vargas said the faculty at her program, some 51 employees servicing its 184 students, are “breathing until January,” when budget talks resume in Washington.
“Thank goodness we’re OK for now,” she said.