Early Education

Mayor Ballard praises revived city preschool plan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Mayor Greg Ballard, speaking to the media in August, hailed a deal with City-County Council Democrats on his proposed plan to offer tuition aid for preschool.

Mayor Greg Ballard’s plan to enroll hundreds of poor children in a city preschool program next year took a big step forward Tuesday thanks to a compromise with the City-County Council’s Democratic leadership.

Ballard today praised the scaled-down deal for a $40 million, five-year plan funded by city funds and philanthropic aid brokered by Council Vice President John Barth. The plan is similar to the one Ballard first proposed over the summer as part of a wider effort to address the city’s growing crime rate.

“Today marks a great day for the future of our city and its children,” Ballard said in a statement. “Four months ago, I proposed a holistic approach to make our city safer by addressing the root causes of crime and poverty, including a plan to make preschool affordable to families in need. Indy is now positioning itself as a leader in local support for preschool.”

Ballard said there was no doubt more students in preschool would benefit the city.

“The research is clear – children from low-income families who attend high-quality preschool do better in school later in life and are less likely to get in trouble with the law as juveniles and as adults,” he said in the statement. “I encourage the council to get this agreement on my desk so I can sign it and we can start enrolling children in preschool next year.”

Ballard’s plan derailed because it didn’t have the support of top Democrats on the council, who didn’t like his preferred approach to pay for the preschool through the repeal of a local homestead tax credit. But talks have continued. What came out of the talks was a compromise: a slightly smaller, $40 million plan aimed at poor three- and four-year-olds, according to Barth.

The new plan will prioritize the poorest children first starting with families of four earning up to $30,290. City dollars used to support the new plan include $1.7 million that was saved through a change to the homestead tax credit program, higher interest expected from city investments, and money saved from the mayor’s education office budget if it decides separately to assess 1 percent fee to charter schools.

“My belief going in was we wanted to take a deep, rather than wide approach,” Barth said. “This is exactly how government should work. That people are willing to continue to come to the table and come to some consensus (is good for) the longterm health of the city.”

Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth said the Office of Education Innovation, which is funded by an approximately $600,000 appropriation, has been thinking for some time of assessing a 1 percent fee to the charter schools it authorizes and that it is in the process of talking to its 39 schools about the fee. He said if that happens, the mayor’s education innovation office would no longer need a separate appropriation, so that money could be used to pay for the preschool plan.

“Our hope would be the council would consider reallocating those funds for an educational purpose, potentially preschool,” Kloth said.

Eli Lilly and Company and other corporate groups, which plan to give $10 million to make the plan work, were a key group in making progress on the compromise. Eli Lilly executives said the philanthropic support was contingent on city leaders coming together to find a workable solution this year.

“Both sides really stuck through this, through some difficult times,” said Michael O’Connor, the company’s director of state government affairs. “We’re pleased that this represents a true compromise. We are comfortable that a $40 million plan is substantial and impactful and will really be catalytic in getting this moving in a statewide manner.”

(Read more: Click here to read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage on Ballard’s preschool plan and the ongoing negotiations.)

The revived plan was hailed by preschool advocates in the city, including Early Learning Indiana president Ted Maple.

“I’m excited about our leaders coming together to create what appears to be a good solution,” Maple said. “Obviously, if a disadvantaged child has two years of high-quality preschool, I believe the impact will be greater. It’s still a very significant plan and I think it will help a lot of young children and families. It would really put Indianapolis on the map nationally with regard to the city taking on a leadership role in early childhood education.”

Stand for Children director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in Indianapolis Public Schools and at the state level, said the compromise was a good sign for continued momentum to expand access to preschool.

“We have to look at the entire continuum of education for our children,” Ohlemiller said. “Anytime you have funding that will increase capacity for early childhood education, those institutions including IPS that see preschool as a key to the future of our children will jump in and try to expand their offerings. It’s absolutely necessary in IPS.”

The new plan will be formally introduced at Monday’s City Council meeting, where it is expected to have support of as many as nine cosponsors from both parties. Some Democrats, including Councilwoman Angela Mansfield, said in recent weeks the city should pursue other priorities ahead of preschool, like expanding animal control efforts and saving trees that are dying because of the deadly emerald ash borer beetle.

“With any proposal, you start by building a coalition and then you grow it based on the quality of your idea,” Barth said. “There’s no doubt that emerald ash borer is an issue to be dealt with. You weigh this opportunity versus addressing emerald ash borer. The priority’s pretty clear. That’s the debate we’ll be having.”

Pre-K payoff

Who benefits from Head Start? Kids who attend — and their kids, too

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Early childhood education benefits more than the kids who participate — it also helps their kids, even decades later.

A new study of Head Start, the large federally funded pre-kindergarten initiative that started in the 1960s, found that the children of kids who participated were substantially more likely to graduate high school and attend college, and less likely to commit crime and become a teen parent.

It’s the latest signal that a substantial investment in early childhood education, particularly when paired with well-funded K-12 schools, can have long-lasting benefits — and offers a striking extension of that research into a second generation.

“Our findings indicate that societal investments in early childhood education can disrupt the intergenerational transmission of the effects of poverty,” write researchers Andrew Barr of Texas A&M and Chloe Gibbs of Notre Dame.

Since the study focuses on the effects of Head Start as it existed decades ago, it’s unclear if today’s program would have the same positive effects. Still, the research is relevant to the nationwide debate on whether to expand, maintain, or reduce spending on early childhood education.

The program currently serves about 40 percent of three- and four-year-olds in poverty nationwide.

Critics of Head Start have pointed to evidence that test-score boosts from the program fade in early grades, and some have advocated cutting the program entirely. But the latest study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, adds to previous research showing that Head Start can lead to major benefits in adulthood.

To determine the effects of Head Start, the researchers looked at children whose grandmothers did not have a high school diploma and whose mothers lived in counties where the program first launched. In order to isolate the effect of the program, Barr and Gibbs compared children of mothers who grew up in places where Head Start was initially rolled out to those who did not have the option to attend; the researchers could not directly measure whether someone actually enrolled.

The study finds that disadvantaged women who had access to Head Start seemed to benefit from the program in ways that helped their children down the line. Because of the program, crime in the second generation fell by 15 percentage points and high school graduation increased by 12 percentage points. Rates of teen parenthood dropped by nearly 9 percentage points and rates of college attendance rose by 17 percentage points.

The study does not examine the income of those second-generation beneficiaries, but the authors point out that a number of the outcomes, like graduating college high school or avoiding crime, are associated with avoiding poverty.

It’s not entirely clear why the program had such big effects years later. The mothers benefitted directly from Head Start — including in the form of higher adult earnings and greater educational attainment — and this may have translated in a number of ways to their children. Other research has shown that increases in family income improve children’s well-being and academic achievement.

The findings also suggest that previous estimates may miss the true cost-effectiveness of Head Start by failing to account for its effects across multiple generations. If investing in the program now reduces poverty later, that saves society money — potentially including resources spent on Head Start.

Still, changes in Head Start, and in America, make it unclear whether the program will have similar effects today.

Head Start was originally intended to provide comprehensive support to students and families, including health services. That goal remains, but Gibbs says the program now focuses more on improving kids’ cognitive skills, and that students entering the program are likely much less disadvantaged than they were 50 years ago. Alternatives to Head Start may also have changed in quality over the last several decades, and home environments for students not attending pre-K may have, too.

But her finding, Gibbs says, “is a proof of concept that an early childhood program can in fact have important anti-poverty implications in the second generation.”

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.