For years, Indiana lagged behind other states when it came to educating three and four year olds. But that’s changing quickly. The state recently launched a pre-k pilot program in five counties, including Marion County, where the Indianapolis mayor’s office also started a scholarship program to enroll more low-income kids in pre-k.
As dozens of preschoolers run around the fenced in playground at Francis Bellamy, a preschool within the Indianapolis Public Schools system, principal Linda Hogan explains why recess is especially important for these children.
“There have been a lot of shootings within five miles of here," says Hogan. "So that’s why they tend not to be able to go outside like they would in other places.”
Francis Bellamy opened just a few years ago in a vacant elementary school on Indianapolis’ east side. Many of the students wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend a preschool …especially not with the safety and education programming available here. And opening the school didn’t just improve academics for those students; Hogan says getting more low-income kids into preschool benefits the entire district.
“Principals will often say to us ‘oh we know the ones that have been to preschool’ because they’re really ready and eager and have the foundation,” she says.
Hogan is working to get all preschool programs in IPS into the top two levels of the state’s Paths to Quality ranking system, something they haven’t achieved before. That status will allow IPS to accept children that have a pre-k scholarship from either the state’s or the mayor’s Preschool Scholarship program. They estimate that could create spots for 100 more preschoolers.
Both programs will ramp up this fall in Indianapolis, with the state’s On My Way Pre-K providing scholarships for a few hundred students and the mayor’s program serving 1,300 kids. More than 5,000 families applied for the mayor’s program, proving demand for preschool is high, but many of the providers in the city, like Francis Bellamy and the rest of IPS, are trying to expand to meet that demand.
Children at the Early Learning Center at Winding Ridge, a preschool within Lawrence Township Schools, learn how to county and say their ABCs…something a lot of kids don’t learn until kindergarten. This district’s preschool program has been expanding over the last decade, putting it in a good position for accepting new students under the two scholarship programs.
Not only are public school districts trying to enroll more students, but private providers are expanding their programs as well. Ted Maple is the president of Early Learning Indiana, which oversees ten private preschools in the city. His organization will create 80 new spots when they open a brand new facility this fall on the east side of Indy.
"Which is a high need area, as a matter of fact, what we’ve learned is that most of the applications for On My Way Pre-K and Indy PSP have come from the east side but there’s very few high quality providers on the east side of Indianapolis," says Maple.
After seeing how popular the scholarships are in Indy, and how much community support there is for early education, Maple says his organization would like to help other communities make the same efforts Indianapolis is.
"Statewide, we really have a lot of interest in working with partners around the state such as areas like Fort Wayne and Evansville to ensure that we’ve got high quality programs, that there’s enough capacity in those communities that there’s family engagement strategies in place and teachers are qualified to provide the kind of educational service that children need," says Maple.
Watching providers get on Paths to Quality and generally increase the quality of their programs excites Jason Kloth, who spearheaded the initiative to start the Indy Preschool Scholarship Program. He says one of the goals of implementing the mayor’s scholarship program was to of course get more kids into classrooms earlier, but…
"The second policy objective was to change the overall supply of preschool over a five year period," says Kloth. "By putting more money into the system, we would increase the overall number of Level 3 and 4 providers across Marion County over that period from 15% to hopefully 80% of providers."
And with the implementation of these two scholarship programs, the preschool landscape in Indianapolis is changing. Programs are expanding, the quality of providers is going up, and most importantly, people outside of education are starting to see that pre-k is an investment in a city.
After working with business leaders and others from around the city to get these programs up and running, Hogan says it’s encouraging to see the city embrace the importance of preschool.
"Those of us who have been involved in early education have shared these ideas for many years, but now it’s wonderful to hear those individuals sharing those ideas back and understanding why this is really, really important," says Hogan.
Kids with scholarships from both the state and Indianapolis pre-k programs can start using them in August.