Early Childhood

Momentum for early learning picking up in Indianapolis

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

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.”


all aboard

Colorado’s top education officials support Gov. Polis’ full-day kindergarten proposal

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The Colorado State Board of Education has put its support behind a proposal for the state to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.

Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on this plan, and earlier this week, he announced that he could pay for it without cutting other programs because local property taxes are bringing in more revenue, freeing up money at the state level.

In a press release, the State Board of Education, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, said it had adopted a resolution in support of that plan.

“We know that high-quality kindergarten programs can help us close opportunity and achievement gaps and ensure that all students have a strong foundation for success throughout their school years,” board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said in the release.

Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said leveraging the strong economy to pay for kindergarten is the right approach.

“The proposal doesn’t create a new mandate for districts or for parents, but it enables districts to offer free, full-day kindergarten for all, and it will help ensure all students are on the path to success,” Durham said.

Right now, about 50,000 students attend full-day programs and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. Many districts charge tuition for the extra half-day — the governor’s office estimates at least 30,000 families pay hundreds of dollars a month, though the state education department doesn’t track this — while others use a combination of federal money for high-poverty schools, state funds to support early literacy, dedicated local taxes, and their own operating funds to cover the cost.

When Polis announced the plan, key Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee raised concerns about using so much additional revenue for kindergarten when there are other needs, particularly transportation. Polis estimates paying for kindergarten will cost an additional $227 million a year, plus a one-time $25 million expenditure for implementation costs such as  curriculum and supplies.

“The governor’s budget doesn’t really touch on transportation, for example,” Joint Budget Committee Chairman Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, told The Denver Post. “And that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents — that they are tired of sitting in traffic. They want better infrastructure.”

But on Wednesday, when Polis formally presented his budget requests to the committee, those same lawmaker asked no questions and later issued official statements that indicated support for kindergarten, even as they included a few caveats about long-term fiscal responsibility.

“After meeting with Gov. Polis to learn more about his budget proposal, I believe his ideas are a solid blueprint which we can build upon for our next budget,” Moreno said in a press release.  “I look forward to continued conversations between the JBC and the governor to see how we can best fulfill these requests and fund these programs in the long-term.”

Early Education 101

Here’s how Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids advocates are trying to put early childhood education on the state policy agenda in Lansing

PHOTO: Getty Images

With scores of new Michigan lawmakers sworn in this month, and new leadership taking shape in Lansing, parents and advocates from across the state are ramping up efforts to put the needs of the state’s youngest children on the political agenda.

Parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids plan to converge on the capitol next week for an “Early Education 101” session with lawmakers that organizers say is the first significant early-childhood event to be held in the capitol in about a decade.

“We decided to do this together so that we can speak with a collective voice,” said Denise Smith, who heads the Flint early childhood collaborative and runs an early childhood center called Educare Flint. “These are not just Detroit or Flint concerns.”

Organized advocacy like this has long been common in Michigan when it comes to K-12 education. Lansing veterans are used to seeing busloads of parents arrive to push for funding or policy changes. But early childhood education advocates haven’t invested the resources to organize events like these in recent years.

Advocates hope that next week’s event will to put the needs of young children and their parents on the radar of lawmakers  as the process for thinking about policy and budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session begins.

Among major concerns for parents across the state is a third-grade reading law that, starting next year, will require schools to hold back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade.

Elementary schools have been working to ramp up their reading instruction, but advocates say the work has to begin much earlier, starting with getting children ready for school when they’re babies or toddlers.

“We need to have the resources and the other investments in early childhood so we can insure that fewer children will be retained,” Smith said.

One of the efforts behind the event is the Hope Starts Here initiative in Detroit, which is a $50 million campaign led by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here).

Hope Starts Here has brought parents, advocates, educators, and others together in Detroit to set priorities, such as making early childhood programs more affordable, improving their quality and expanding their reach.

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” said Camarrah Morgan, who is helping to lead community engagement and advocacy efforts for Hope Starts Here.

It’s not just parents and educators pushing the cause, she said. “We have corporate partners at the state level who are advocating for child care because they’re trying to recruit and retain workers … This is about helping policymakers understand why childcare is important.”

Organizers say that 165 lawmakers or members of their staffs have signed up for the Jan. 22 “lunch and learn” event in Lansing, including new and returning officials. There also will be 75 parents from across the state.

The parents will be learning too, said Felicia Cash, a parent and community advocate from Detroit’s east side who plans to participate.

“Success would be the parents being fired up once we come back,” Cash said. “It can’t just be a one-time event. We have to have the energy and the perseverance to continue lobbying, to continue writing, to continue having town hall meetings here in the city, to return back to Lansing. This is our voices being lifted up, our voices being taken seriously.”