For a more than a decade, early learning advocates in Indianapolis who argued that more and better quality preschool could dramatically help kids start kindergarten more prepared to learn were deeply frustrated.

State lawmakers repeatedly took a pass on getting Indiana out of a small club of less than 10 states that spent no state dollars to help low income children attend preschool. Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest and poorest school district in the city, had only a limited public preschool program. And quality privately-run preschools were expensive and hard to find.

As recently as 2012, the U.S. Census found as many as 60 percent of Indiana children did not have access to preschool.

But the landscape has changed so dramatically that IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told school board members this week he believes the district could offer universal preschool to four-year-olds within five years, and possibly much sooner.

That would mean seats for 3,000 children, equal to roughly the number of kindergarteners who enroll at IPS each year.

“We’re about a third of the way there and it’s taken us about a year and a half to get there,” Ferebee said. “I think we’ll get there sooner rather than later.”

On top of IPS’s fast growing program, other high quality options appear poised to create more spaces.

Just last week, the Day Nursery Association, which runs some of the city’s most highly-regarded preschools, announced plans to run new preschool programs at two charter schools. After a year delay, announced Thursday, the first-ever state-supported preschool program will begin serving up to 4,000 four-year-olds in five Indiana counties in 2014.

If Marion County is one of them, that could put even more low income children in preschool. Suddenly, the large swath of Indianapolis children who have been left out of early learning opportunities could start to shrink.

Ted Maple, president and CEO of Day Nursery Association of Indianapolis, who previously helped lead the lobbying efforts for expanded public preschool in Indiana as the United Way of Central Indiana’s head of early childhood education initiatives, is cautiously optimistic.

“I think the gap is going to narrow but I don’t think it’s going to narrow enough,” he said. “There’s still going to be plenty of need out there.”

IPS expands its program

Despite strong school board support for expanding preschool in IPS, there was early hesitation about launching a program that was too big too soon.

That worry appears to be dissipating.

“I’d like to shorten the timeline by which we’ll get to 100 percent preschool,” board member Sam Odle told Ferebee in a school board retreat on Thursday.

Ferebee’s predecessor originally announced a program for 1,400 four-year-olds in 2013, but the board quickly scaled it back, citing budget concerns among other worries. It launched last fall and serves about 700 children at 11 sites today.

On Tuesday, the board approved an expansion to 13 sites and 900 children for next year.

Ferebee said on Thursday he wants to offer free, universal preschool to four-year-olds across the district within the next five years.

Odle and board member Diane Arnold urged him to move faster.

Perhaps IPS could work with outside providers and partners to speed up the process, they suggested. Ferebee said he was working on that.

“I’m trying to build those relationships and ensure there is trust with IPS that we can be a good partner,” he said.

If IPS can win that trust, Odle said, he believed IPS could rally support to meet its goals.

“It’s just a matter of putting it together,” Odle said. “I believe the money is floating through the community already. The kids are falling through the cracks.”

Charters get in the preschool game

Unprepared kindergarteners is not just an IPS problem. Charter schools, which collectively serve more Indianapolis children than some of the city’s 11 school districts, also have children starting schools who don’t know their letters or have never held a book.

When that happens, it’s tough to keep them from falling behind their peers in school.

“A significant amount of learning takes place before a child is seven years old,” said Jay Geshay, senior vice president for community planning and strategic initiatives at United Way of Central Indiana, which believes early education should be funded through public-private partnerships. “Because those early years are so critical, we need to be invested in it. Unfortunately, families of low income do not have the means necessary to invest in their children in those early years.”

Last week two charter schools — Phalen Leadership Academy and the Vision Academy — forged their own partnerships to try to boost the skills of children who enroll for kindergarten.

Maple’s organization will add 80 preschool spots for low-income children at the two schools . Maple called it “an opportunity for us to expand in a smart way.”

The state gets in the game

Some had hoped one more financial supporter of preschool would boost early learning in Indianapolis even more this fall: the state.

But that will have to wait a year.

A statewide pilot preschool program, successfully shepherded through the legislature by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, is coming to Indiana. But Marion County won’t know for a while whether it will be selected to participate.

They could spend $15 million in public and private money on tuition support for children to attend preschools. The income eligibility limit for a family of four is $30,289 annually, so, tuition aid would range between $2,500 and $6,800 a year depending on income. The pilot is only limited by budget. There is no cap on the number of participants.

Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration spokeswoman Marni Lemons saying that the legislation requires a number of hurdles to be jumped prior to implementation, including:

  •  securing a researcher to “conduct the longitudinal child outcome study”
  • designing and implementing a kindergarten readiness assessment and program accountability system
  • upgrading information technology and staffing

“Due to these requirements, the scholarships will not roll out in the Fall of 2014,” Lemons said. “The roll out date will be announced as soon as it is finalized.”

Still, added seats in IPS and at charters schools while the county waits to hear about the state program are reasons for optimism, Maple said.

“All are good positive signs,” he said. “We have a long way to go. I’m very, very encouraged by the governor’s leadership on this and the legislature seems to embrace it. It’s something that we should make sure every child has regardless of their family’s ability to pay for it.”