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The power of Pre-K in Indiana

Legislature considers bills to expand preschool education


  • Courtesy of MSD of Lawrence Township

When Erin Sughrue walks around Amy Beverland Early Learning Center in Indianapolis, she often gets stopped. Not by concerned parents or teachers, but by students, running up to her to give her a hug or say hi.

"She's got a lot of fans here," Denna Renbarger, the director of early childhood education programs for the Early Learning Centers, said with a smile.

Amy Beverland is one of the Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Lawrence Township's four Early Learning Centers, each of which are unique centers of learning for young children. Sughrue is the principal at Amy Beverland.

"We believe that it's about learning. It's not about us just doing things to kids, like here's a bunch of fun things to do. It's about, are the children learning? And so we are constantly watching them and looking at their discoveries," Renbarger said.

There are no store-bought number or alphabet charts in the center. Instead, posters about ABCs and 123s are made by students. In one class, each number was created out of found objects, like buttons, twigs, kernels of corn and other materials glued to pieces of cardboard and hung on the wall.

Instead of long cafeteria tables, kids sit at small round tables to eat, where they can talk to one another. What other places might call a gym, the big room where kids get to play is called "The Big Playroom" at Amy Beverland.

There are also no hand-turkeys for Thanksgiving. In fact, hand-turkeys are one of Sughrue's pet peeves. Students at Amy Beverland got the opportunity to see live turkeys one year. A cage was brought in with a few turkeys on display for the children to see. The children got attached to the turkeys, Renbarger said.

The students at the Early Learning Centers get an education that is a mix of Montessori, HighScope, Reggio and other traditional styles of teaching, Renbarger said. Sughrue added that teachers at Amy Beverland don't rush the kids in their learning.

"That is unique for centers like this to be able to do what we believe and still be a part of the public school system," Sughrue said, talking about the centers' ability to follow the state's requirements while adhering to their beliefs. "We have really worked for many years to do that."

Ten years ago, none of this was the case. Ten years ago, kindergarten in MSD Lawrence Township was centralized at the high school. Preschool was nonexistent.

Researching early learning

Renbarger and others in the district traveled to Italy to learn about their preschool methods. They noticed, she said, that there was one philosophy, the Reggio method, in lots of buildings, and they wanted to bring that philosophy back with them.

But there was very little funding for full-day kindergarten, and none for Pre-K.

So, Renbarger turned to the families in her district.

"Our families said, 'We want a place where young kids can be young,'" she said. "That's kind of been Lawrence's thing for a while, is that they do believe, let them be little and that this is the time."

This is the principle behind the Early Learning Centers: allowing kids to be young while ensuring that they learn skills they will use throughout school. This type of program in a public school system is uncommon, Sughrue said, which is what sets MSD Lawrence Township apart.

Dr. Shawn Smith, Superintendent of MSD of Lawrence Township, reads to students at one of the township's Early Learning Centers. - COURTESY OF MSD OF LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP
  • Courtesy of MSD of Lawrence Township
  • Dr. Shawn Smith, Superintendent of MSD of Lawrence Township, reads to students at one of the township's Early Learning Centers.

"Everything in our society is so hurried," Sughrue said, "and so we really work to slow down and give children the time and space that they need to be active in their learning, to help construct that learning, to help create meaning and to be a facilitator of that with [the kids]."

Preschool, and Pre-K, is unbelievably important, for both kids and parents. It provides parents, especially those who need to work, with a place to send their children, and it gives children experience socializing with others, among other things.

Despite this, though, not many Hoosier children are enrolled in Pre-K programs, often because they can't afford it.

Indiana law does not require schooling for children until the age of seven. And the state does not have a fully implemented state-funded Pre-K program. State funding has begun for some counties, and lawmakers are now deciding whether or not to extend more funding to other counties in the state to give more children these early learning opportunities.

"Really in Indiana, the question is at what point will public money pay for children to be out of the home," Renbarger said. "Where are you if your family works and needs you to be someplace? Why can't it be someplace outstanding?" she continued. "For just the matter that they were in a safe, happy place, it's better."

Without a strong state program to help, it's up to parents to pay much of the bill for a Pre-K education. In its 2017 report, the Early Learning Advisory Committee (ELAC) found that 65 percent of the total funding for early learning programs came from private sources, like families. The state was responsible for six percent, and the federal government provided 28 percent.


The 2017 ELAC report also stated that the annual cost of Pre-K programs is on average almost $7,400, a number that is unrealistic for many Indiana families, especially those with lower incomes — which is why over 60 percent of Hoosier three- and four-year-olds are not enrolled in formal preschool or early childhood education programs, and only 13 percent are enrolled in programs the state considers to be high quality.

To help lower-income Hoosier families afford early childhood education, a pilot program was passed in 2014 and began in 2015 for five counties in the state. On My Way Pre-K provides $2,500 annually to families enrolling their 4-year-old in a part-day, high quality Pre-K program and $6,800 annually for 4-year-olds in full-day Pre-K programs. Currently, though, On My Way Pre-K only serves children and families in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion or Vanderburgh counties.

Now, it is up to lawmakers to decide the future of the program, and new bills in the Senate and House are looking to expand and extend it, to allow more children to attend Pre-K programs across the state.

Senate hearings

"Not going to preschool affects everything else," Ashley Thomas, the Family Engagement and Organizing Specialist at Stand for Children Indiana, said at the Senate hearing on January 25 about the Pre-K bill. Thomas, a mother of three, talked about not being able to send her oldest son to Pre-K, and how he struggled in kindergarten.

Pre-K programs in general benefit both the children in the programs and their parents, as well as the state as a whole in the long run.

"If a child or children can't get a good quality education, it leads to a degree of hopelessness," Sen. Eric Bassler, R- Washington, said. "It leads to fewer job opportunities. It leads to fewer opportunities to buy a car, to own a home, to have a family, and the more people we can help achieve that 'American dream,' the better it is for society."

A 2016 study about the benefits of early childhood education done by researchers at IU found multiple perks of Pre-K programs for the state.

These include an estimated 12 percent reduction in instances of special education and an estimated 18 percent reduction in instances of remediation or repeating a grade. This means the state spends up to eight percent less on remediation and special education.

Early childhood education also provides children with up to a 10 percent increase in the value of their future earnings, and decreases for the state anywhere from $63 and $162 million, per cohort, in lifetime crime costs.

The Early Learning Centers provide a quality education, but take into consideration the creative powers of children.

"What we promise to wherever our kids go after they leave is; we're giving you thinkers," Sughrue said. Creative thinkers, she added, are what are needed most in our job markets today.

Parents benefit as well when they are able to send their children to preschool. In On My Way Pre-K's one-year report, a parent survey found that 51 percent of parents were able to work or attend school more, 35 percent were able to find new jobs and 33 percent were able to start training for a job or go to school.


"One thing we're going to struggle with in Indiana probably for the next 5 years, maybe even 10 or 15 years," Bassler said, "is matching up our citizens and being sure that they have the knowledge and qualifications to be matched up with the jobs that are going to be available." The beginnings of the necessary knowledge and qualifications, he continued, lie in quality Pre-K programs, followed by a quality K-12 education.

The goal of On My Way Pre-K was to allow more young children to get that first step, a quality Pre-K education. Renbarger said that is what is happening at the Early Learning Centers.

"I would say one just basic effect [of On My Way Pre-K] is, look how many children are getting access to nursing, [to] a place of social interaction," Renbarger said, "and in a quality preschool they are in great early literacy activities. They're being read to."

The Early Learning Centers have shown increases in preschool attendance, from 322 in 2013-2014 to 417 this academic year, and Renbarger said that in a few years, the program will likely be comprised of a majority of four-year-olds, because of On My Way Pre-K's age requirement.

To jumpstart the pilot program, then-Governor Mike Pence allocated $10 million per year in state funds. (In 2014, just after approving the pilot program, the Pence administration decided not to apply for a federal education grant. The grant could have provided up to $80 million for use in early childhood education programs. In a letter, Pence said he did not apply for the grant because it would have forced the state to expand the program before the pilot was up and running.)

Governor Eric Holcomb, in his State of the State address on January 17, called for the state to double its investment in Pre-K programs, to make a total state investment of $20 million.

Bassler and Senators Randall Head, R-Logansport, and Travis Holdman, R-Markle, authored SB 276, looking to expand On My Way Pre-K. As it is written now, Bassler said, the bill would open up On My Way Pre-K funding to every community in the state, as long as those communities can meet the income requirement of below 127 percent of the poverty line and the requirement of having qualified programs.


A qualified program is one that is a level three or four on Paths to Quality, Indiana's statewide ranking system for early childhood education. Amy Beverland Early Learning Center is a level four, so Renbarger said parents can get all possible assistance with paying for the program.

It's those high-quality programs, Renbarger said, that make the difference because those are the programs with activities and experiences that are developmentally appropriate to the age and culture of each child.

On February 15, the Senate Education and Career Development Committee approved an amended SB 276. The amendments — in addition to the one expanding the program to all eligible programs instead of only an additional five counties — include additional requirements for parental participation, designating 10 percent of the funding to be put toward expanding capacities, either with existing providers or through the addition of new sites and combining the Early Education Matching Grant funding with On My Way Pre-K to make a grand total of $22 million in funding for the program. In an 8-3 vote, the bill is now being considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Bassler said he has high hopes for Indiana's Pre-K future.

"Assuming the pilot and then this expansion continues to go well, I could definitely see it being more statewide, and in fact, in a way, if the Senate bill gets through and nothing gets changed then it really does become a statewide program because it's no longer based on a geographic region or town," he said.

More than 20 people from organizations across the state gave their testimony about the importance of extending the pilot program, and expanding it to more counties. Some called for more funding and expansion than what the bill currently calls for. All spoke about the benefits that had already been seen from the program.

In the few years the pilot program has been in place, more young children are enrolled in high quality Pre-K programs across the state. In 2011, almost 25,000 children were enrolled, before On My Way Pre-K. ELAC's 2017 Annual Report cited almost 45,000 children just six years later.

At the committee meeting, David Nicole from the United Way of Allen County said Allen County Pre-Ks were able to provide education to 500 additional children because of On My Way Pre-K.


Bassler said he has a good feeling that the pilot program will be expanded and says he can see a future for increased participation by other communities in the state.

"My sense is that a lot of people on the House side are supportive," Bassler said. "The governor's in support of expanding, the various House members are, the various Senate members are, so it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page."

House Bill 1004 was passed and referred to the Senate on February 8. This bill supports increased funding for high-quality pre-K programs for lower-income Hoosier families with young children and for expanding the On My Way Pre-K program to more children in other counties. The bill received a 61-34 vote and is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville.

Ideally, Bassler said, he would like to see a way to take the federal money coming to parents to help them pay for Pre-K and funnel it into state money so the state could help more children, but that is not the goal of this current bill.

For children at the Early Learning Centers, some of whom are there because of On My Way Pre-K funding, they're simply enjoying the opportunity to learn in a place that celebrates them as people.

"Instead of telling them the answers, we help them generate the answers for themselves," Sughrue said. "Every day we have to remind ourselves that [the children] only get to be three once, so every day that they get to be three years old is precious." 


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