To combat pandemic learning loss, new Project Rainbow brings free early childhood programs to homes, phones in Chicago area


CHICAGO – A lone doe chewing on a leaf raises her head as she notices the camera. Bees hover in a sea of green, searching for a flower to pollinate. And yellow petals from a field of black-eyed Susans bounce in the wind to a gentle piano and drum soundtrack.

“Wildflowers can grow tall as they reach for the sky, while others grow down low,” says Alex Palmer, a naturalist at the Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Illinois. “Some wildflowers are colorful and showy, like the black-eyed Susans that we’re looking at now. Others are small and nimble, and you really have to look hard to find them.”

That’s one slice of the dozens of TV segments that Cook County government and local cultural institutions have filmed for a new initiative titled Project Rainbow, which aims to bring free early childhood education programming to families via the county’s cable channel. Usually known for airing routine news conferences and board meetings, the network started playing the videos, geared for pre-kindergarten-age children, last week.

Starting then, children and families could tune in at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every weekday.

The goal is to take the education opportunities that some families may have missed during the coronavirus pandemic, whether due to social distancing or financial strains, and bring opportunities for learning to their living rooms, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

“For families that are comfortable, they can access resources more readily than those who are more challenged financially,” Preckwinkle said. “We hope that (Project Rainbow) will be particularly utilized by those children and families that might not have access to other resources.”

Preckwinkle singled out “learning loss,” the disruption in a student’s academic growth from being out of school, as a “tremendous” gap that Project Rainbow will tackle. Learning loss has been traditionally cited during the summer break but exploded as a term after remote learning took hold during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nick Shields, Preckwinkle’s communications director and creator of Project Rainbow, said he imagines the initiative will be useful long after the worst of the pandemic is over. But next, he said, the county plans to roll out a smartphone app so families without cable can tune in too. The part of the initiative will be aided by Microsoft and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, which is led by former President Barack Obama official David Axelrod.

Shields said he was inspired to roll out an early childhood education project after seeing the impact of the stay-at-home order and the subsequent restrictions on his 2-year-old twins and 4-year-old.

“All I had to do is look at home and see how our lives have all changed,” Shields said. “This is a program that could have existed before COVID, and it’s definitely an initiative that is relevant today and tomorrow.”

Beyond the excursions out in nature, the curriculum also contains lessons on literacy, particularly phonemic awareness, as well as numeracy, designed by teachers picked by the nonprofit Golden Apple Foundation, which offers educator preparation and awards. Actors from the Chicago Children’s Theatre then perform those lessons.

Alan Mather, president of Golden Apple and former longtime Chicago Public Schools official, said the project is not meant to supplant what goes on in classrooms but rather give children a range of educational moments that the pandemic may have taken from them.

“I just think everybody’s struggling, especially in early childhood education, around what it means to provide some sort of virtual experience,” Mather said. “This is going to, we hope, provide some sort of unifying experience but also really address some of the learning loss that we know happens for a lot of families.”

Finally, partnering organizations said they hope the video segments could help children feel more connected after an extraordinary year of isolation. Leah Rippe, marketing and communications vice president at the Brookfield Zoo, said visuals of their polar bear diving into water or giraffes stretching their necks will help open up the world to young children.

“Kids of all ages love animals, and to be able to experience different species that they wouldn’t be able to see or learn about, I think, is a tremendous opportunity especially with preschool age kids who are just starting to learn about the natural world,” Rippe said.

Other organizations who pitched in include Adler Planetarium, Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Joffrey Ballet, Shedd Aquarium and the Common Ground Foundation, which was launched by the Chicago-bred rapper Common. Museums such as the Chicago Children’s Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry are also on the list.

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