How Preschool Works in Illinois
January 08, 2020
A 5-minute guide to preschool and child care in Illinois, with a special section on Chicago. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.
Takeaway: Illinois provides parents with summaries of child care licensing requirements and access to violation histories for any programs they are considering. The state makes it easy to locate high-quality care with a search tool that categorizes programs according to the level of standards they meet or exceed. Illinois also offers high-quality pre-K programs, though spots are limited due to a lack of funding, even as federal support has increased.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is the licensing authority for day care centers, day care homes, and group day care homes in the state. Licensing requires a yearly inspection of facilities. DCFS has a searchable database of care providers with information pertaining to license issuance and expirations as well as violations. Illinois also has a voluntary quality rating system that encourages participating child care providers to improve standards for care beyond minimum licensing requirements.
Excelerate Illinois allows families to search early learning programs by program name, city, county, zip code, distance, and the level of standards achieved according to quality designation. The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) offers a number of services to families who require financial assistance, including referrals, wage supplements, and scholarships.
In 2007, Illinois became the first state to develop universal state-funded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. Its pre-K program recently received additional financial support from the state and from a federal Preschool Development and Expansion grant, but still remains underfunded. It did, however, meet eight out of ten of the Quality Standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
The DCFS provides an abbreviated version of requirements in both English and Spanish so that parents may understand the minimum necessary conditions for licensing. Some municipalities have more demanding standards than those imposed by the state. Centers must have a director of at least 21 years of age and with at least two years of college or comparable experience and documented qualifications. Teachers and staff must be at least 19 years of age and are also required to have attended two years and one year of college, respectively, or to possess comparable experience. All staff must complete 15 hours of training a year, and one staff member certified in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver must be present at all times. Centers licensed to care for newborns and infants must have staff who are trained in safe sleeping practices.
The staff-to-child ratio for infants (6 weeks through 14 months) is 1:4, with a maximum group size of 12; for toddlers (15 months through 23 months), 1:5, with a maximum group size of 15; for 2-year-olds, 1:8, with a maximum group size of 16; for 3- to 5-year-olds, 1:10, with a maximum group size of 20; and for school-aged children 5 and above, 1:20, with a maximum group size of 30, if an assistant is also present. The age of the youngest child present in mixed-age groups determines the required staff-to-child ratio. Infants and toddlers must be cared for in groups separate from older children. Parents must be allowed to visit the center at any time during operating hours. Centers are expected to develop a comprehensive curriculum that incorporates both quiet and active learning, with an emphasis on outdoor play. Centers must also meet strict health and safety standards. Children must have updated medical records and immunization forms and are required to wash their hands each time they enter the building, use the bathroom, and eat meals.
Illinois has two forms of home-based care: day care homes and group day care homes. Day care homes are available for groups of up to 12 children in a caregiver’s private residence. Like day care centers, day care homes must be inspected annually, and licenses must be visibly posted. In order to pass a licensing inspection, homes must be secured and proofed to ensure a safe and healthy environment for children. Caregivers must be at least 18 years of age and are required to have a high school diploma, 15 hours of training annually, as well as training in CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and safe sleeping practices. Children are required to be supervised at all times. Just like center-based facilities, day care homes must provide a balance of quiet and active learning and allow parents to visit at any time during operating hours. A single caregiver may supervise up to eight children under the age of 12 in various configurations. For example, a caregiver can look after no more five children under the age of 5, with no more than three children under the age of 24 months; no more than six children under the age of 5, with no more than two children under the age of 30 months; and up to eight children who are all school-aged. A primary caregiver and assistant together may also care for up to eight children, with up to five children under the age of 24 months, and up to four more school-aged children, if the assistant is at least 18 years of age.
Group day care homes may provide care for up to 16 children, including the caregiver’s own children. Caregivers must be at least 21 years of age — older than the minimum required age for regular day care homes. They must also have at least one year of college, or prior early child care experience of at least one year, in addition to one year of college-level course work. That said, caregivers may be approved for a license if they have an up-to-date Child Developmental Credential instead of college credit or work experience. Caregivers must also have 15 hours of in-service training per year, as well as training in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver; no mention is made of an awareness of safe sleeping practices, as with day care homes. A single caregiver may supervise up to eight children under 12 years of age as long as no more than five children are under the age of 5, and no more than three children are under the age of 24 months; no more than six children under the age of five with no more than two children under the age of 30 months; and up to eight pre-school aged children at least 3 years of age. A primary caregiver and assistant may supervise up to 12 children between the ages of 3 and 6, and up to 12 children under the age of 6, as long as no more than six children are under the age of 30 months, and no more than four children are under the age of 15 months. A primary caregiver and two assistants may provide before- and after-school care for an additional four children.
Providers who care for fewer than three children are legally exempt from licensing in Illinois. Additionally, if children are from a single household or are the children of the caregiver, then licensing is not required. License-exempt programs include those operated by public and private schools; programs approved by the Illinois State Board of Education; and programs affiliated with religious organizations, among others.
Chicago offers its own portal for searching early learning options, including Head Start, Early Head Start, public school–based programs, and community-based programs. Only programs that receive public funds are included on the site. The Community Partnership Program works to ensure quality child care for children from birth to age 5 by directing families to search using Excelerate Illinois.