Indiana seeks $10 million federal grant to find gaps in early childhood education

Even though Indiana has been increasingly investing in early childhood education, the state still faces big challenges in how it serves its littlest students — and leaders are hoping a federal grant will help change that.

Too many poor children in rural areas, children in foster care, and children ages birth to 3 don’t have access to high-quality preschools, state leaders and early learning advocates fear. Families often don’t understand their choices. Health care and social services agencies often don’t know how to connect families with preschools. Preschool workers often don’t have enough training.

“Sometimes we’re not as knowledgeable as we’d like to be about where those gaps exist for those families,” said Nicole Norvell, director of Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.

To identify and address the gaps, Indiana is applying for a nearly $10 million federal Preschool Development Grant. The plan, submitted to the federal government earlier this month, would cost about $14 million, with help from about $4 million in matching state dollars.

Up to 40 states could receive awards. It’s uncertain when states will hear back about their applications, but it could be as early as the end of December.

The federal grant is specifically aimed at planning and assessing needs, not necessarily for directly funding additional preschool seats. Indiana is proposing to look at how the different pieces of its early childhood landscape fit together, crafting a strategic plan while improving the quality of preschool providers and workers.

“Indiana, like every other state, is struggling to build an effective system of care and education for children birth to 5,” said Maureen Weber, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana. “I think this grant could go a long way.”

Weber and other early learning advocates are also pushing for Indiana to expand its pre-Kindergarten program, known as On My Way Pre-K. The state invested $22 million this year in vouchers for low-income families to pay for their 4-year-olds to attend high-quality pre-K. The city of Indianapolis, with private partnership dollars, added $40 million over five years to pay for pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families.

“One of our greatest challenges is that too many Hoosiers lack the education and skills for available jobs and the jobs of the future,” Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb wrote in the application. “The opportunity to devise a comprehensive strategic plan that supports the early childhood education system is an integral step to building capacity so that young Hoosiers are prepared for elementary school and beyond.”

Here are some of the areas Indiana plans to address, according to the grant application:

  • Increase opportunities for infants and toddlers.
  • Smooth the transition to kindergarten.
  • Bring together local preschool providers so they can share resources and strategies.
  • Better support foster families seeking child care.
  • Increase family engagement efforts.
  • Improve training to better understand how to work with families who are culturally and linguistically diverse.
  • Train partner agencies on safe sleep, and train child care workers on addressing the needs of children and families who have experienced trauma.
  • Incentivize local and regional agencies to support early childhood programs in their areas.
  • Increase the number of top-quality preschools.