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How Bensenville Collab Leaders Helped Build a Gateway to Success for Early Learners

According to the DuPage County Historical Society's website, the word tioga means “the gate.”

It’s a word from Native American Potawatomis who lived in the area of what is now Bensenville, Illinois, until roughly the mid-1830s. Today the word is the name of Tioga School, in Bensenville School District 2 (BSD2). At Tioga School, an innovative early childhood education center is a gateway to a more prosperous life for children, birth to age 5, who enter its classrooms. With programs, services, and collaboration, BSD2 is building better lives for its residents. Part of that success came from grants provided by Bright & Early DuPage (B&ED) to help form and support the Bensenville Early Learning Supporters (BELS) collaborative.

“Anything we can do to help our kids conquer challenges before they enter kindergarten yields huge opportunities for success as adults,” said Jim Stelter, superintendent for the past 11 years and 19 years in total with BSD2. “I do believe it takes a village and Bright & Early DuPage is a part of that village,” he added.

Success Through Donors and Funding from Bright & Early DuPage
B&ED, a DuPage Foundation initiative, helps under-resourced communities in DuPage County prepare children from birth to enter kindergarten at age 5. The goal is for the entire classroom to achieve success. 

Without a program like BELS, some children would go without preschool. This means they might go without screenings to identify potential learning disabilities, hearing, vision, and other issues that are often more easily treated and mitigated if caught early. A lack of screenings can also mean missed early education milestones that can bog down a teacher and drag down a whole classroom of children, not just in kindergarten, but for their entire academic career, as lower achievement in one grade cascades into the next.

That’s certainly not the case in Bensenville. Despite having a mostly low-income population, often with English as a second or third language, Bensenville's schools—and its community--are thankfully thriving, said Stelter. The pandemic threw BSD2 some curveballs, but the early learning center at Tioga and its programs stayed mostly open, helping to shield these young families from greater harm due to the pandemic last year.

Serving Low-Income Populations with Success and Aplomb
Parents in this community are often deemed essential workers: In manufacturing, healthcare, restaurant work, and other — primarily low-paying — service industries, so there was no “choice” about staying home or heading off to work. The Head Start, Early Head Start, and Preschool for All programs housed at Tioga School had a very short shut down in the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020. But since re-opening, it’s been full steam ahead for the early learners in BSD2 and their families and they’re even expanding to meet the need.

According to BELS program coordinator Christy Poli, while the early education and screening programs — funded initially by grants from Bright & Early DuPage — have maintained and even expanded throughout 2020, she said, “We are lacking enrichment programs for kids. Park district programs for them were greatly reduced. There was nothing going on all year. We lack getting our dads/male role models involved. We want to use resources for enrichment with males and their children because research shows good relationships with dads help children to be more successful in most cases.”

Aftermath of Trauma a Concern
Another concern Poli brought to a recent discussion with the B&ED Advisory Committee relates to trauma and mental health. Undoubtedly, some young children have experienced trauma due to COVID and its tentacles in their family situations. As parents faced employment and financial troubles in addition to health and medical concerns, these stressors can trickle down, affecting children. Early childhood trauma can have serious repercussions later in life due to the way trauma affects brain development. Children who experience trauma are more likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, experience teen pregnancy, and wind up in the justice system, a drain on society rather than a natural resource bringing new growth and fresh, positive ideas for everyone’s benefit.

Expansion with Elmhurst
Despite these nagging concerns — or perhaps in part because of them — the Bensenville Early Learning Supporters doubled down and expanded, welcoming areas located in Elmhurst and served by Elmhurst schools into their fold. Together the two areas have brought even more under-resourced families the resources, services, and support they need to blossom. During COVID, partnerships were formed that delivered food, shelter, services, and programs to the people who needed them the most, through the collaborative.

Poli said, “We’re strengthening the collaborative. Instead of starting a new one, we have been working together. We’re working with partners to bring more programs to families virtually and to increase the number of collaborators. We’ve gotten the Village involved which has the power to affect change. We’re working smarter, not harder, to make a difference.”

Early Funding Equals More Funding
One of the benefits of the early funding from B&ED is the data yielded from very early information. The data collection helped BSD2 apply for more funding and increase its program offerings and physical space to serve more people and early learners. Since 2014, BSD2 has seen massive growth in funding, built new facilities, and greatly expanded its services to the community with the support of Stelter’s passionate belief in the power of early childhood education.

Indeed, Stelter’s passion for the role of early childhood education caused him to be tapped for the McCormick Foundation Executive Fellow Program in 2018, a prestigious post for educational leaders.

More Success Yields More Success
“The more people we can bring in, the more successful we can be,” he said. “It’s the community that helps build successful adults. Together we can be successful. It’s when we’re apart that we’re not successful.”

Still, Stelter said, “The case for early childhood education needs to be stronger. Partnerships with DuPage Foundation and B&ED help us build that strength. Without it, it would have been much more difficult to have completed all the good work that we’ve done. Partnering with DuPage Foundation has helped us solve so many problems. It’s helped us accomplish our goals and continue to build on our strengths for the good of every family.”

*According to the DuPage County Historical Society website

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