Retired preschool teacher brings learning to children in underserved Chicago neighborhoods

CHICAGO -- They say once you're a teacher, it's always in your blood. That couldn't be more true than for retired preschool teacher Michelle Dinneen-White.

It bothered her that young children in certain parts of our city weren't getting the same leg up when it came to early education. So what did she do? She got in her car and brought the lessons to them.

Dinneen-White and her team of volunteers bring their mobile preschool to five sites on the South Side every week. That's roughly 275 kids getting schooled for free.

"I love the program!" said mom Da'Chanda Norman. "I think it's excellent for the kids, and now my daughter comes home and teaches me what she learned, which tells me she's taking away a lot!"

Norman says there wasn't anything like this in her neighborhood when her older three kids were this age and preschool wasn't in the budget.

Hello Baby, located on East 61 Street, is one of the sites that Dinneen-White's team visits. Founder Debbie Frisch said it only made sense to build their kid center there.

"You've heard of food deserts. Well, there's play deserts, too," Frisch said. "We had a mom stand outside and it was so sweet. She said, 'I'm just looking. I can't afford to come in here' and I said, 'This is for you! We want you to come in here!'"

Hello Baby offers free drop in play to anyone with young children and that includes Dinneen-White's weekly Play Smart Literacy hour.

Each hourly session is designed to engage the kids and encourage talk through play. Every lesson is then texted to their parents with ideas to keep the conversation going at home.

"I always tell parents, it's not about the toys, it's the conversation", Dinneen-White said.

Researchers say 80 percent of a child's brain development occurs by the time they are 3 years old. Play Smart Literacy, now in it's third year, works with nearly 150 families in Chicago's most underserved neighborhoods. She knows her mobile preschool can't reach everyone, but hopes the lessons learned will carry and continue to build at home.

"When the parents send back videos or pictures of them playing with their children that same night...that's just so beautiful to me. I love that," Dinneen-White said.

For more information, check out these links:

PlaySmartLiteracy.org

Facebook.com/playsmartliteracy/

@play_literacy

hellobabychgo.org