Coalition's ambitious goal: improve and expand preschool in Indiana

A new coalition dedicated to making it easier for poor children to attend preschool in Indiana has set lofty goals for the next five years: raise the quality of 400 preschools, spur enough expansion to create space for 1,000 new preschoolers and help train 300 preschool teachers so they can earn better credentials.

The ultimate goal of the plan, advocates say, is to prepare the state for the possibility that a statewide preschool program could be widely expanded in the next few years. The initiative is supported by a $20 million grant from the Lilly Endowment.

Although the legislature has balked at expansion from the small program it created last year to help pay preschool tuition that eventually could serve 2,000 poor children in five counties, advocates are pushing hard for more.

“It’s where we need to go,” said Ted Maple, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana, which operates a network of preschools, as his organization launched the five-year plan called Partnerships for Early Learners on Tuesday. “This is a large amount of money from a very generous grant. It can’t change what needs to be changed on its own. Clearly, much more is needed.”

The plan focuses around spending about $6 million to help more of Indiana’s nearly 2,500 preschools earn a higher rating on the state’s voluntary four-step preschool quality rating system, called Paths to Quality. A rating of three or four certifies that preschools offer a safe environment and a curriculum that promotes learning.

Currently only 900 preschools in Indiana, serving about 35 percent of Indiana children attending such programs, are rated a 3 or 4.

Partnerships for Early Learners also plans to spend $3 million to help those high-rated preschools increase the number children they can serve, $3 million on training for preschool teachers and $2 million to promote family involvement in learning.

Preschool advocates said this spring at a Chalkbeat event that the lack of qualified preschool teachers in Indiana is one of the main challenges of expansion.

Maple hopes the effort will include helping children to learn starting from birth, such as through nurse-family partnerships.

“It’s the type of funding that allows us to innovate and be creative,” Maple said.

The effort will seek both public and private partners. For instance, 15 AmeriCorps members — part of a national public service effort — will work in 15 state preschool pilot sites this year with the goal of getting parents more involved.

The focus on public and private partnerships is what will help Indiana create a program that will last, said Karen Ponder, a North Carolina-based preschool consultant who helps states trying to improve their systems.

Ponder, who once ran then-North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt’s statewide preschool program Smart Start, recently started consulting in Indiana and attended Tuesday’s launch. Even though she agrees much more needs to be done in Indiana, she said the new plan is a step in the right direction.

She said Indiana should look at North Carolina’s progress as an example. The state started with one of the lowest educational attainment records in the nation, she said. Then it became a national example for early childhood education as its preschool program expanded to all of its 100 counties.

“You can get there,” Ponder said, “from almost anywhere.”