Panel: Partnerships, big and small, are key to preschool progress in Indianapolis

Despite a strong new push to expand preschool in Indianapolis, the only way a large number of children can arrive for kindergarten better prepared is if schools, policymakers, families, communities, businesses and many others work together, local experts said today.

Preschool educators and policymakers gathered today at Butler University to talk about the future of preschool in Indianapolis at an event hosted by Chalkbeat in partnership with WFYI public media and Butler’s College of Education and sponsored by Kroger. Panelists included Indianapolis’ Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth; Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana; Ena Shelley, dean of Butler University’s College of Education; and Shalonda Murray, director of the Flanner House Child Development Center.

Some of the most promising or effective methods of serving young children are partnerships, they said.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s $40 million, five-year public-private preschool program, which earned final City Council approval last month, is an example. Smaller partnerships also are making a difference, such as those between Butler’s lab preschool at Indianapolis Public School 60, or a new partnership between Early Learning Indiana and two local charter schools.

“I think partnerships like that are a lot of what our programs are based on,” Maple said. “And I think it’s working. There are shared costs, there are shared goals, there are shared kids. Partnerships only work if it’s not one-sided, and there’s certainly benefits to both, and we want to see more partnerships like that.”

But partnerships aren’t only about managing costs. They also are about building trust with families, Murray said.

“Providers have to take in all of those different facets of the neighborhood and the community,” Murray said. “We are looking at teacher compensation, family engagement, community engagement and also engaging other community programs for the families that will eventually benefit the child as well.”

Only preschool providers who have earned a level three or level four quality rating from the state can qualify for Ballard’s program or a new state pilot program, both of which provide aid to poor children to pay for preschool. Those higher ratings mean the programs are both safe environments for children and provide academic lessons.

Between the city and state, about $55 million will be funneled into Indianapolis preschools over the next five years, Kloth said, but until more preschools earn the higher ratings, there won’t be enough space for the children to attend qualifying programs. Of about 800 preschools in the city, only about 53 are level three or level four.

“One of the primary intentions of our programs is not only to get children and families into these schools, but it’s over that five-year window to change the supply of level three and four programs in the market,” Kloth said. “So when the state does expand it, there’s a supply of providers to take those resources. I’m not sure the market could take more.”

But a big barrier to better preschools is finding enough quality teachers  Shelley said the low wages for preschool teachers are in stark contrast to the certifications required to become a preschool teacher.

The state requires students seeking a license to teach preschool to take a total of 12 tests in various content areas and child development — more than an elementary school teacher is required to do, she said. That costs hundreds of dollars, Shelley said.

“You can’t ask students to pay what is expected of tuition and then go out and make minimum wage,” she said. “We have people who want to do the work, but the salary has to be such that they can do the work.”

Murray and Maple said they’ve encountered many potential teachers who are educated and have innovative ideas and enthusiasm, but they don’t have the required background in teaching. That either means programs have to train their employees, or the state should consider other pathways to a license.

“We are looking at people with the education, but not necessarily the experience,” Murray said. “So we are trying to recruit individuals who have the education as well as the experience, but at the same time, these individuals want to make a livable wage.”

And as far as funding, Murray argued that the state faces a difficult trade off: it can fund preschool now, or pay later for the long-term costs of children who continue in poverty as adults.

“A lot of these children that we are focusing on are in poverty now, and if we don’t make an impact now, they will be in poverty later as well,” she said.

State and city programs are already underway. Earlier this week, Gov. Mike Pence announced the state’s new preschool pilot would grow by about 600 more seats this fall. The city’s serves about 1,000 students. What will move things forward, Maple said, is more collaboration.

“I think what we really need to be working toward (is building) a cohesive system between schools, the community base, providers and others that really creates an early childhood system that’s worthy of investment from families and from parents,” he said. “One that is really high-quality and has enough seats to serve the kids in Indiana.”