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Catrina Jackson shares how the recent sequester is harming our city’s early-education programs


Catrina Jackson

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Updated: July 2, 2013 8:10AM

Like many mothers, I can — and do — go on and on about my babies.

Of course, my four daughters (ages 5 to 21) are hardly babies anymore. Most days, it seems as if my youngest, Judah, is going on 16 — recently, she was deep in thought and announced that she was “contemplating” which shoes to wear.

I’ve come to expect that type of vocabulary from Judah, who, along with two of her older sisters, has participated in Chicago Commons’ nationally acclaimed Head Start program. Over the years, I have dropped my girls off hundreds of times at the Nia Family Center in West Humboldt Park. Outside, the neighborhood may be rough, but inside it’s a sanctuary of learning and discovery. A place where kids learn by moving, touching, listening and seeing. A place where they are encouraged to express themselves creatively.

My children blossomed in the Head Start program. All of Judah’s big sisters — Darlene, 21, a student at University of Illinois at Springfield, Christina, 16, and Amber 15 — are confident, well-spoken and outgoing young ladies.

One big, awkward word that is probably beyond even Judah is “sequester.” To determine its exact meaning, I visited, where it’s defined as, “Harmful automatic budget cuts [that] threaten hundreds of jobs and cut vital services for children, seniors, people with mental illness and our men and women in uniform.” The sequester (or sequestration federal budget cuts) were approved by Congress in 2011 and took effect March 1 in a forced effort to reign in our country’s deficit.

Those cuts have harmed Head Start programs nationwide. The timing is particularly ironic, as President Barack Obama championed Head Start and advocated for the program’s expansion in his State of the Union Address in January. Chicago Commons, where I’ve worked as a human resource clerk since 2010, has already taken a $117,000 hit to its Head Start program. In fiscal year 2014 (which begins July 1), the number will swell to $300,000. This means many children won’t get the same opportunities that my children were given.

I know firsthand just how significant education can be. In fact, it was a conversation with my girls that led to my own second act in education. When they asked me why I had not completed college, I couldn’t give them an answer. So I enrolled at Wilbur Wright College and earned my Associate in Arts degree in 2010. From there, I was off to Northeastern Illinois University to study social work.

I took an internship while I was in school, working as a facilitator with a domestic violence group for perpetrators. The group was all men, and when we talked about the ability to express frustration through words instead of fists, the room fell silent. Faces went blank. This experience inspired me to focus my research on how early childhood education can prevent violence. My research confirmed what I had witnessed with my daughters: If every child has an opportunity to build an early education foundation, there would be less street violence.

On May 13, I earned my bachelor’s degree with my four babies and my husband of 22 years in attendance. Two years from now, I look forward to celebrating again when I complete my master’s degree. I’ve made the most of my second chance at education, but I understand there is only one chance at raising and educating children the right way. To take a page from Judah’s dictionary, the fact that we are even “contemplating” these budget cuts does a disservice to our most important resource: our children.

I hope you can support Chicago Commons, which has meant so much to me and thousands of other families throughout its 119-year history. To learn more, visit

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