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May 23, 2006

First Lady Patricia Blagojevich celebrates the grand opening of the Kohl Children’s Museum’s two-acre interactive outdoor exhibit: Habitat Park
First Lady stresses the importance of early childhood education; discusses Preschool for All and encourages parents to take advantage of museums as an innovative, hands-on approach to education

GLENVIEW – First Lady Patricia Blagojevich today celebrated the grand opening of the Kohl Children’s Museum’s new two-acre interactive outdoor exhibit, Habitat ParkHabitat Park offers fun and educational programming for a diverse audience of young children, their families, caregivers and teachers.  At the museum, the First Lady talked about the importance of early childhood education and highlighted Governor Rod R. Blagojevich’s landmark Preschool for All plan - a program that makes Illinois the only state in that nation to offer high-quality preschool to every three and four-year-old child. 
“Kohl Children’s Museum’s newest exhibit is a great opportunity for education and entertainment for all Illinois families,” said First Lady Patricia Blagojevich.  “Habitat Park will offer children wonderful chances to learn about the environment from an early age, and to explore and respect the world outside.  Habitat Park will also offer a safe and secure environment for young children and their caregivers to discover the wonders of our State’s natural beauty.”
“We are very excited about the opening of Habitat Park,” said Sheridan Turner, President and CEO of Kohl Children’s Museum. “As safe outdoor spaces are being replaced with huge developments, children are becoming more and more disconnected from the natural world around them. They’re spending more time inside, interacting with electronic playthings and not experiencing the wonders of nature as much as they could, particularly children from underserved urban areas that the Museum targets for outreach opportunities.
“Not only does Habitat Park offer a fun, safe place for children to experience nature at a young age, it also increases the number of programs we can offer and children we can educate.  We are fortunate to have access to an outdoor space that will certainly build a love of nature for children at an early age, and shape future advocates of the world’s natural resources,” said Turner.
Open all year round, Habitat Park allows children to explore the natural environment during all four seasons.  Featuring a secure, fenced-in outdoor space complimented with winding paths and sculptures designed to be touched and interacted with, children can safely explore the exhibit’s various habitats, including indigenous plant and animal life.  The exhibit includes occasional programming with museum educators, such as natural scavenger hunts, shelter building, shadow games, parachute play, tree-leaf matching, opportunities to assist with outdoor caretaking, and insect explorations.  These activities are designed so teachers and adult caregivers across all generations can easily replicate or expand on the experiences at home, school, on family vacations or outings to other outdoor parks.  
Habitat Park offers interactive art experiences to enhance outdoor exploration and discovery.  Animal tracks are painted on the sidewalks to represent the presence of deer, squirrels, frogs and other animals.  Children are encouraged to follow the tracks to discover places where those animals might make their homes.  Plenty of opportunities for building fun are provided in the three 52-inch digging areas, which are filled with sand and stocked with safe, developmentally appropriate sand toys. 
At the Kohl Children’s Museum, the First Lady addressed the importance of early education; she highlighted the Governor’s landmark Preschool for All plan and urged parents to take their children to museums. 
“Starting education as early as possible is fundamental for children to do well in school,” said the First Lady.  “Museums create an environment where children can learn, be active, and have fun, all at the same time, and most importantly, at a young age.  Taking a trip to the museum is an enjoyable learning experience for both adults and children.  I encourage parents to take advantage of the many wonderful children’s museums here in Illinois.”
The Governor’s Preschool for All plan guarantees that nearly 190,000 children in Illinois will have the chance to attend preschool.   Studies have shown that students who attend preschool are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to need special education and less likely to be arrested for committing violent crimes.
Preschool for All will allow every community to offer high-quality preschool in a variety of settings, including public and private schools, child care centers, and licensed family child care homes, private preschools, park districts, faith-based organizations, and other community-based agencies.  The program requires that preschools be staffed by experienced teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees and specialized training in early education, and provide at least two and a half hours per day of high-quality programming designed to foster all of the skills -- social, emotional, physical, and cognitive -- that all young children need to achieve success. 
The language for Preschool for All was contained in Senate Bill 1497, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) and Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester). SB 1497 amends the school code to authorize the use of state funds for pre-kindergarten services for children who are not defined as “at-risk.”  Under current law, pre-kindergarten funds are used exclusively to serve at-risk kids.  At-risk kids have the greatest need of service, and numerous studies show that they benefit significantly from attending preschool. 
However, there are many kids who do not meet the current definition of at-risk who could still benefit from preschool.  For example, parents making $50,000 a year may not have enough money to provide their child with high-quality preschool, but if the child doesn’t have any other risk factors, they’re not going to qualify for state-funded pre-kindergarten. In Illinois, the average annual cost of private early learning programs for 3 and 4-year-olds is $5,200, and the cost for two children can exceed $10,400 annually – the salary of a minimum wage earner. The new Preschool for All program will continue to prioritize at-risk children, but expands it to also serve middle-income families.
Yesterday, the Governor signed the budget for Fiscal Year 2007, which includes $45 million to give 10,000 more children the chance to attend preschool.  By providing increases of $45 million in each of the following two years, Illinois will give a total of 32,000 more kids the opportunity to attend preschool.  After three years, every 4-year-old will be covered, plus more than 55,000 3-year-olds.  In years four and five of the rollout, service will be extended to all remaining interested 3-year-olds.
Countless studies demonstrate the benefits of early learning in preschool.  Children who begin reading at age three or four do better throughout their academic careers.  Children who received high-quality early education are 20 percent more likely to complete high school and 41 percent less likely to be placed in special education.  In addition, children who received high-quality early education are 42 percent less likely to be arrested as a juvenile for a violent offense, and will have higher earnings and property wealth as an adult.
Investments in early childhood education also pay enormous economic dividends in the long-term.  Based on certain economic returns like increased earning potential, decreased dependency on social services and on the justice system, it is estimated that society receives $7.14 for every $1 spent on early childcare programs.  That means the $90 million Governor Blagojevich has invested over the last two years would yield at least $643 million in savings over the lifetime of those children. A newer study released in November 2004 found an even higher rate of return – showing a savings of more than $17 for every $1 invested. 
As First Lady, Patricia Blagojevich has worked tirelessly to promote initiatives that help Illinois families bring up happy, healthy, and successful children. The Children’s Reading Club is a recommended reading list made up of books the First Lady and her daughters enjoy at home. The First Lady launched this literacy initiative program in February of 2005, and has selected books such as The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy, and Maniac Magee for the recommended list.  Each month’s book selection is featured on the First Lady’s website, http://www.illinois.gov/firstlady.  Mrs. Blagojevich began the Children’s Reading Club to encourage parents to read with their children and hopes the recommended list will enable parents to find books the whole family can enjoy. 


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