Dusty Miller is a kindergarten teacher at Lafayette’s Vinton Elementary School. His students are learning how to write their names, handle scissors and recognize shapes and letters -- all important skills for kindergartners.
But Miller’s students aren’t quite kindergartners, or at least, they won’t be until the fall. They’re kids who have no preschool experience, or know English only as their second language, and are at risk of falling behind their classmates when school starts.
Miller teaches these kids during the summer as part of United Way’s Kindergarten Countdown camp, a kindergarten readiness program. United Way partners with IU Health and local elementary schools to prepare at-risk kids for school. The camp is one of Tippecanoe County’s few solutions for a lack of state-funded preschool programs.
United Way of Lafayette CEO James Taylor says nearly half of Indiana children are not prepared when they enter kindergarten -- most from low income families.
"There are folks that are working pretty hard and they have a hard time finding appropriate avenues for children to be cared for and the level of qualification that some of these people have for providing high quality childcare just doesn’t exist," Taylor says.
To remedy the problem, Governor Mike Pence launched the On My Way Pre-K pilot program last summer, which gives vouchers to families who live below 127-percent of the poverty line so their kids can attend preschool. Future plans for On My Way are unclear, especially because the program has no sustainable funding. Still, Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) Deputy Director Marni Lemons says the program has the potential to expand.
"There are some longitudinal studies that are going to be done with the children who come out of the program, and then the hope is to look at the results of that and study those," Lemons says. "Then it will be up to the legislature to decide whether or not to expand it in the future."
Back in the classroom, Miller says the kids in Kindergarten Countdown thrive when they return to school in August.
"When they come in the fall to school, they’re ready to go and they feel like they’ve done this before and they have so much more confidence," Miller says. "And that makes their kindergarten teacher’s job a lot easier too, so they can teach a lot faster."
The FSSA nominated 18 counties as finalists, including Tippecanoe, but only five counties -- Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion, and Vanderburgh -- were selected to host the program. Lawmakers introduced bills this session expanding the program to the other 13 semi-finalist counties, but no such language passed.