Early Childhood

Text messages, toiletries, and backpacks: Indiana gets creative with pre-K outreach in rural areas

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

In the years since Indiana first launched its need-based prekindergarten grants in 2015, many families have said they were interested — but then never signed up.

Program manager Erica Woodward tried to call to follow up with them. She didn’t hear back.

What she later found out was that many of the parents didn’t pick up phone calls from unknown numbers, thinking they might be creditors.

So this year, she started texting families instead. Many responded to her, and about 15 more of them ended up enrolling in the state’s On My Way Pre-K program.

This is just one of the strategies that the state is using in its critical effort to double the number of students in On My Way Pre-K, which pays for 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend a high-quality pre-K program of their choice for free. After an initial launch three years ago mostly centered around Indiana’s largest cities, the state is spending $22 million to expand the program from about 2,000 to 4,000 children and reach 15 additional counties, many of them rural — which can present a greater challenge to reach families that qualify.

Still, how well this year’s expansion goes will likely set the stage for the future of the five-year pilot program. Advocates and policymakers are carefully tracking the demand for pre-K, the availability of high-quality providers, and the growth of students to see whether the investment pays off.

While the state says it expects to fill the about 4,000 available seats, staff in the new participating counties have needed to get creative about signing up families. While larger cities have seen a crush of families interested in pre-K opportunities, rural counties are working with a pool of far fewer eligible families and providers, who may be unaware the program exists.

“The need for On My Way Pre-K, regardless of whether we hit the target, is there,” said Woodward, program manager for four southern counties.

In rural counties, she said it takes a serious grassroots effort by local community and education organizations to spread the word about On My Way Pre-K. People often think it’s just a new preschool — they may not realize it’s an opportunity for their children to attend high-quality pre-K for free.

Organizers also work to make sure eligible families meet all the requirements of the program. If parents meet the income thresholds but aren’t working or in school, they’re guided to a local community center, community college, or workforce agency.

To entice people to finish the application process, counties are giving away backpacks filled with food or toiletries.

It works with varying results. Already, some counties new to On My Way Pre-K are seeing high interest from families, the state said — potentially more interest than the program can meet.

Pre-K supporters tout the program for giving access to high-quality early childhood education to people who would have otherwise struggled to afford it. It helps parents hold down full-time jobs or go to school. And early reports on the program show it helps children who, at age 4, are already lagging behind their peers.

Even though the state trails behind most of the nation in this area, pre-K is growing slowly and deliberately in order to focus on results and quality during the pilot.

“When the five years are done and we have a full study, we can do an analysis for if we want to do extra funding for the program, and to make sure capacity is out there,” said Dennis Kruse, a Republican who leads the Indiana Senate’s education committee. “We don’t want to have On My Way Pre-K to be watered down by adding too much money too soon, and then it’s not as effective as it was for the first five years.”

The pace frustrates some advocates, who want to see more children benefiting from early learning. While some lawmakers are wary of expanding pre-K because they believe government is stepping into what has traditionally been a family’s role, most lawmakers appear to be on board with On My Way Pre-K, which was spearheaded by Republican governors Mike Pence and Eric Holcomb.

The sticking point would likely come down to money. Expanding pre-K further could be expensive, particularly if the state lifted or loosened the income eligibility rules. Already, the public funding requires a small match from community partners. It’s unknown how pre-K could continue to be funded, though many agree the likely reality would still be a blend of public and private dollars.

Still, three years into the pilot program, one expert notes the state’s investment in pre-K has changed the way many look at early childhood education, particularly in the high-need, low-income communities served by On My Way Pre-K.

“It is changing the nature of preschool from health and safety to high-quality education,” said Susan Adamson, a Butler University assistant professor who focuses on early childhood education.

Consider that before Jackson County became the first rural county to participate in On My Way Pre-K in 2015, it had just two pre-K providers whose quality was recognized by the state for having a curriculum to prepare children for kindergarten. Now, it has 13.

That benefits all students at those providers, not just those enrolled through the state’s program.

Krystal Perry, a single mother working full-time in Columbus, Indiana, started looking for somewhere to sign up her twins for pre-K as soon as they turned 4. She wanted them to be ready for school, and she figured it was better to start early.

“I know they say that pre-K is not a mandatory thing, but they can never learn enough,” Perry, 34, said.

But she worried about the cost, she worried about her children being safe, and she worried about finding a full-time, year-round program.

She found a high-quality, full-day pre-K program that offered scholarships for her twins, and later, she signed up for On My Way Pre-K when it was expanded to her county. She said she hopes that frees up the school’s scholarship dollars for other families.

Her children come home and sing songs, recite days of the week and months in the year, and chatter about colors, shapes, and numbers.

“Being a full-time parent and working full-time, it gets hard and stressful,” Perry said. “Not having to worry about if I’m going to make enough money at work for my kids to be in school, that’s a whole other level of stress relief off my shoulders.”

In Columbus and surrounding Bartholomew County, the state pre-K program offered a chance to build on a longstanding local mission to improve early childhood education, said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

“We want to give every kid an equal shot,” she said. “I think it will increase the number of children that attend pre-K. It will increase the academic outcomes for kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading, and over time, our children will do better. We’ll have more children graduating from high school and going on to gain post-secondary skills.”

But the state program is just one piece of a large issue. While Oren hopes On My Way Pre-K will be successful, she doesn’t expect it to solve all of the county’s needs. Oren said she believes there are still many families in need of affordable high-quality pre-K, and not enough seats at high-quality providers.

“I think it’s always going to be a blended approach in Indiana, and in Bartholomew County, of public-private funding,” Oren said. “But what that exactly looks like, I don’t know.”

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.