Indiana lawmakers went to preschool. Here’s what they learned

In a preschool classroom, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children woke up from their naps Wednesday afternoon to greet a crowd of curious state lawmakers.

The classroom at St. Mary’s Child Center in downtown Indianapolis kept the lights dim as some children stayed snoozing peacefully in their cots. Around a tiny table, the earlier risers took out books and talked to the Indianapolis lawmakers who were interested in how prekindergarten can give children a better start in life.

Four-year-old Preciosa opened one of her favorite books. “It’s about a bad seed,” she explained the title and theme to Rep. Cherrish Pryor, pointing to the words “I’m a bad seed,” and turning the page to show Pryor the bad deeds of the striped seed.

“That looks like a watermelon,” said Pryor, a Democrat.

“It’s just a seed, silly,” Preciosa replied.

As Republican Sen. Jim Merritt leaned in to look at the book, Pryor warned him: “Be careful. She’ll correct you.”

What early childhood advocates wanted the seven visiting lawmakers to see was the difference that high-quality preschool can make for children living in poverty, in the hopes that lawmakers will expand access to early learning opportunities next year to more children across the state.

Almost all of the 224 children at St. Mary’s five locations come from poor families. But while research says children in poverty often lag years behind their more affluent peers, executive director Connie Sherman told lawmakers that 83 percent of St. Mary’s children finish preschool ready for kindergarten.

“We believe this is how you change the world,” Sherman said.

She cited statistics on “the cradle-to-prison pipeline” — the likelihood that children in poverty will grow up and go to prison. “Unless something happens along their trajectory, that’s their destiny,” Sherman said.

Early childhood education can be the intervention that changes that trajectory, she said. It can be the place, she said, where young children who have lived through trauma — such as being abused, moving in and out of foster homes, or seeing a loved one get shot — can feel safe and develop critical skills.

Sherman showed off the students’ artwork and explained their investigation into ants, when they tried to catch their own ants from outside to put inside an ant farm. They spend as much time outside as possible, she said, because it isn’t always safe for them to play outside at home.

“This, I believe, could help give kids a fighting chance,” said Republican Sen. John Ruckelshaus. “This is beyond numbers. This is the human element.”

Similar visits have been playing out across the state for months, arranged by lobbyists and advocates pushing to expand Indiana’s voucher program to help poor families pay for high-quality pre-K. While pre-K is a bipartisan issue with many supporters in the legislature, expansion has been deliberate, incremental, and a question of how much lawmakers are willing to spend.

When lawmakers consider pre-K funding in January, Sherman wants them to think about how nap time used to be the most difficult time of day at St. Mary’s. The children would scream, cry, and even hit staff members when nap time came around.

“Of course,” Sherman recalled an expert telling her, “because children who come from trauma and adversity, they’re scared to close their eyes.”

So St. Mary’s began washing blankets in lavender, gave children lavender-scented yarn balls to hug, played a soothing sound machine, and taught the children a rhythmic exercise to tap their fingers and rock their bodies to sleep.

“For some of them, it may be the best sleep they get,” she said.

On the tour of the classrooms, Pryor stood up after reading the book with 4-year-old Preciosa. The room was buzzing with children, teachers, and politicians and lobbyists who stood around chatting. But she looked over at a corner and noticed that one child was sleeping through it all, curled up on a cot with a little blue blanket.

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