University of Illinois Chicago awarded $1 million to promote diversity in early childhood education


Boram Kim


The University of Illinois Chicago’s (UIC) early childhood education department received a $1 million dollar grant from the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) in April that supports the recruitment of students with diverse backgrounds into the program. 


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UIC was one of four state institutions of higher learning that IBHE selected for its Early Childhood Faculty Preparation (ECFP) Grant program, which awarded a total of $3.37 million. 

ECFP grants are part of Gov. JB Pritzker’s Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity (ECACE) initiative, an inter-agency and statewide higher education effort to promote early childhood workforce in Illinois.

“Through the [ECFP] grant funds, the universities will build innovative models for graduate studies and effective higher education adult learning practices in early childhood,” said ECACE Project Director Christi Chadwick at the time the grant was awarded. “Each of the unique programs will support the need for a robust pipeline of diverse faculty in early childhood.”

Both ECFP and ECACE are part of the governor’s larger state initiative to improve early childhood education, Smart Start Illinois. Funding for the initiative aims to improve access to preschool, and pay for childcare providers and educational facilities in Illinois. 

The legislature recently approved $18.8 billion for IBHE, which will go toward programs that support schools, faculty, and student learning. This allocation includes $250 million to fund the first year of Smart Start. 

UIC will utilize the grant funding to support its Early Childhood Future Faculty Program (ECFFP). Michelle Parker-Katz, a clinical professor at UIC, teaches and advises students in the “blended” graduate program, which prepares students for both early childhood and early childhood with disabilities education. 

“We are charged with preparing people who are current early childhood educators—so they’re currently in community centers and or in preschools that could be in our public schools or private preschools,” Parker-Katz told State of Reform. “Those teachers are the people who we believe could be very good at training additional people to come into the workforce.

[ECFFP] will be training 21 people to earn a Master’s that is very focused on them becoming early childhood teacher educators.”

The grant money will go to support tuition and stipends for all 21 students enrolled in the program. Parker-Katz said preparations are already underway for training those students, 20 of whom are BIPOC. 

Each of the students will take part in an internship that partners them with faculty mentors at community colleges and four-year institutions for two semesters to learn how early childhood teachers are trained. The aim is to have these future educators build curriculums that are inclusive for children from disenfranchised groups and less-resourced, higher-poverty areas. 

“We want people to be ready to prepare future teachers who will work with [diverse] families and work with communities,” Parker-Katz said. “We want them to be ready for other kinds of work that we do as college [faculty] like recruitment, retention, [and] understanding and contributing to policy.”

At the 2023 Illinois State of Reform Conference in Chicago last week, a panel of experts on early childhood spoke to the implementation of Pritzker’s Children Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative (CBHTI), a push to transform the continuity of behavioral healthcare.

On the panel, John Walkup, MD, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, emphasized the earlier the evidence-based behavioral health intervention is made, the better the outcomes for children. 

Preschools may soon become a point of access to care, where mental health assessments of toddlers may be administered. 

Dana Weiner, PhD, the chief officer of CBHTI, said she will be meeting with public school district officials soon to look at how to build statewide mental health and universal screening at all K-12 public schools. 

One day, the graduates of Parker-Katz’s class could very well be training future preschool teachers on administering those assessments and the latest evidence-based treatments to kids.

Parker-Katz believes with the Smart Start program, it is a wonderful time and space for enhancing early childhood education. She is encouraged to see a “strong” policy coalition coming together to inform and implement policies. 

“[Enacting policy] is where our passion and our commitment come together, along with our networking,” she said.