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Peoria community leaders advocate for more support of early childhood education

Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos (left) speaks about early childhood education and law enforcement at a press conference Wednesday morning, flanked by Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins (middle) and Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria.
Collin Schopp
Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos (left) speaks about early childhood education and law enforcement at a press conference Wednesday morning, flanked by Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins (middle) and Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria.

A new report from the nonprofit Council for a Strong America has community leaders advocating for the importance of early childhood education in Peoria.

The report, titled “Social Emotional Skills: An Early Childhood Fundamental,” makes the case that strong social-emotional development early in children’s lives lowers the chances of negative short- and long-term outcomes like mental health challenges. It also argues a positive impact on the state’s economy, safety and long-term national security.

However, the report starts with a sobering statistic: only 30% of Illinois children enter kindergarten equipped with an early childhood education that prepares them for school.

Council for a Strong America Illinois State Director Sean Noble says, in Peoria's District 150, that number is 16.4%.

Kate Buchanan, the council’s Illinois Deputy State Director, says the organization is broken down into three membership groups: Ready Nation for business leaders, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids for law enforcement and Mission Readiness for military officials.

Greater Peoria Economic Development Council CEO Chris Setti is a member of Ready Nation. He says early childhood education is a critical component of the workforce.

“When we think about what is attractive about our communities, and we talk about the strength of our schools, we also have to be able to articulate the strength of our early childhood programs,” Setti said. “Whether that's daycare or preschool, but also our employers need that, our families need it as a way of helping them get to work, to take care of their children.”

Setti says skills associated with social-emotional learning, like conflict resolution and impulse control, are also vital to future growth of a reliable workforce for local businesses to recruit from.

The recruitment concerns extend to the military as well. At a press conference about the report Wednesday, retired Air Force General Gary Dylewski said 77% of Americans between 17 and 24 years old are ineligible for military service. He says some of the reasons, like health concerns, criminal records and substance abuse, are tied to early childhood education.

“Their early childhood education has not given them the head start that you've heard about already today. So that they can succeed later on, get a high school diploma, which they need to enter the military,” said Dylewski. “And also, they're not prepared for the emotional and social interactions that are required in order to do well in our business.”

There are also law enforcement considerations. Peoria County State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos is a Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Member. She cites a study following 800 kindergartners, also cited in the council’s report, as evidence of the link between early childhood education and encounters with law enforcement.

“It found that those with robust social emotional skills were less likely to be involved with the police later on, and less likely to have been booked into a juvenile detention center,” Hoos said. “By age 25, those with strong emotional skills were less likely to have been arrested or arrested [sic] for serious offenses. And it also attributed to lower rates of substance abuse later in life.”

There are early education resources in Peoria, but the demand outpaces the supply. Jacqui Jones is the Director of Early Learning at the Peoria Regional Office of Education. She says her organization provides a variety of services for children from age zero to five, but there’s often a long waiting list.

The Regional Office of Education places special emphasis on social-emotional learning, using a variety of techniques.

“So while students might often come in at the beginning of the school year throwing tantrums, screaming, crying, hitting, we teach other skills to handle these problems,” Jones said. “Puppets and role playing are used to learn about sharing and turn taking and how to ask for help.”

Some other examples of exercises are breathing techniques, categorizing emotions and reading picture books.

So, the nonprofit’s report identifies early childhood education as important, but how does the organization propose increasing access? Noble says the answer is legislation and funding.

He says funding is particularly needed for early intervention, or EI services. EI services provide treatments like physical and speech therapy for children with diagnosed developmental disabilities. But, Noble says EI typically has long wait times the nonprofit would like to see shortened.

“We can do that with a funding increase of about $40 million in the state budget in this next year,” Noble said. “Now, that compares with the $6 million boost in the budget that the governor outlined last week, and it's one of the few ways that our organizations differ at all from the budget hopes that the governor had outlined.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.