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Fox Valley United Way, City of Aurora and Schools Unveil Early Childhood Education Initiative

The Dunham Fund will provide up to $250,000 in matching grants. A two-year matching grant program that has the potential to raise as much as $500,000 for early childhood learning programs aimed at Aurora preschoolers was announced today by Fox Valley United Way (FVUW) and the Dunham Fund.

Called SPARK, an Aurora Early Childhood Collaborative Initiative, the initiative seeks to improve the chances of success for Aurora children by strengthening their school readiness skills – early literacy, math and vocabulary skills; social skills; and self control.  Ultimately, however, the benefit will be a better educated, better prepared workforce that can fill local and regional jobs, according to Mike Meyer, Fox Valley United Way CEO.

The program’s initial funding is being underwritten by the Dunham Fund, which will match up to $125,000 in donations to the FVUW SPARK program for each of the next two years.  Fox Valley United Way will raise the matching funds and oversee the structure of the program.

The Dunham Fund is a private foundation established in 2006 to honor the legacy of Aurora businessman and philanthropist John C. Dunham. “Our role in the community is to help provide resources to appropriate Aurora-area organizations that are engaged in education and, in that context, help individuals reach goals they may not otherwise attain,” said Dunham Chairman Stewart Beach.

Funding is off to a “very positive” start, FVUW CEO Mike Meyer said at a news conference introducing the SPARK initiative.  The City of Aurora, Fox Valley United Way and the four school districts that educate most Aurora children – Aurora West District 129, Aurora East District 131, Indian Prairie District 204 and Oswego District 308 – have all made initial donations of $15,000 and pledged a similar donation for 2013. In addition, Building Blocks, an Illinois Action for Children project, funded by the Grand Victoria Foundation, aimed at supporting high quality early care and education programs in high-need communities has pledged $25,000 to SPARK for 2012.

With matching Dunham funds, the SPARK effort already has reached $230,000 in contributions for 2012. Meyer said his organization would approach foundations and other large organizations seeking additional funds for this year and next.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner praised the willingness of the four school districts to help coordinate an approach to early childhood education that will reach more Aurora children but also noted the longer-term benefit of a better prepared workforce.  At the same time, Weisner said, “We must help parents prepare their children for a brighter future – for themselves, their families and our community.”

A big part of the program’s role will be to help school districts and other early childhood providers coordinate their efforts so that, for example, children on a waiting list for early education opportunities offered by the four school districts – which are at capacity – are offered opportunities at community-based programs that have openings, Meyer said.

Although the school districts that serve Aurora have significantly expanded their early education programs, Meyer noted that research conducted by early childhood expert Theresa Hawley indicates “There are still only enough publicly-funded preschool programs to serve 49 percent of the three- and four-year old children considered at risk.” Statewide, the service level is 95 percent.

What children learn before age three has “profound consequences for their eventual readiness to succeed” in school and beyond, Meyer quoted from Hawley’s research.  “Birth to age three programs and high quality preschool can set children on a positive trajectory.”
The acronym SPARK stands for Strong, Prepared and Ready for Kindergarten.  The Aurora SPARK Initiative is patterned after a national United Way early childhood program, Success By 6, that operates in more than 350 communities across the United States.