By Marla Holt, photo by Ken Carl
When Jesse Ilhardt (B.A. ’08) enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Minnesota, she intended to become a public relations professional or a journalist. But two experiences during her senior year converged to change her path. Ilhardt is the cofounder and director of education at VOCEL, a language-focused preschool on Chicago’s west side that serves some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. VOCEL stands for Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders. Ilhardt credits an assignment for a literary journalism class, along with her part-time job as a nanny for an upper-income family, for opening her eyes to language development disparities in children of differing backgrounds. The assignment required spending time at a Head Start preschool in Minneapolis, where she observed what studies have confirmed: that by age 4, children growing up in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. “Those experiences ignited in me a curiosity about how children develop language skills and really set me on a path to learn more about child psychology and early childhood education,” Ilhardt says.
Teaching preschool, training other educators for Teach for America in her native Chicago, and earning a master’s degree in early childhood education from Dominican University in suburban Chicago deepened Ilhardt’s desire to work toward greater parity in the early childhood experiences of all children, regardless of family income.
VOCEL is a full-day, year-round program with 17 students and three teachers. It takes a fresh approach to language acquisition by using every minute of the day for conversation and interaction with peers and teachers. “We talk while we stand in line for the bathroom, while we’re reading stories, and while we eat,” Ilhardt says. It can be noisy and a bit chaotic, she says, but it’s all in the service of language development and helping children build communication, social, and critical thinking skills.
To raise the $250,000 needed to open VOCEL’s pilot classroom last September, Ilhardt and her founding partner, executive director Kelly Lambrinatos, turned to a variety of funding sources. A crowdfunding campaign on Crowdtilt included interacting with potential donors on social media and hosting live events to raise more than $86,000 from 275 donors in 75 days. The remainder of the $250,000 first-year budget has come from more traditional sources, such as grants and large gifts raised by the preschool’s board of directors.
VOCEL’s first year is key to its success. “Once we have proven results, we hope to open additional classrooms in other neighborhoods,” Ilhardt says. “Our goal is that quality early childhood education becomes an expectation—not a luxury—for all children."