Indiana is selecting five counties –Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh—to test its pre-k pilot program and see whether it should be expanded to the rest of the state. Only parents in those five counties will be eligible to receive state dollars to pay for preschool, but local leaders in counties that didn’t qualify for the program are still seeking ways to make early childhood education a priority.
What is the pilot program?
First off, we need to understand what the program is and how it works.
The pre-k pilot program is a result of legislation the General Assembly passed this year. The program provides money to low-income families in the five counties selected to enroll their four-year-olds in a high quality preschools. In terms of this legislation, low-income is defined as making less than 127 percent of the federal poverty level. A high quality program is defined as meeting Level 3 or 4 on the state’s Paths To Quality ranking system.
Children will enroll in these programs, and the Family and Social Services Administration will conduct a longitudal study to see how preschool for these students affects their education in the long run. This is why the program is only available in limited areas right now.
Melanie Brizzi, director of early childhood learning at the FSSA, says the 18 finalist counties submitted statements of readiness to make their case to be a host county. Brizzi says the five counties were chosen based on multiple criteria.
“Geographical diversity, rural, non-rural, and the ability to meet a longitudal study, as well as those other components like the community’s past commitment to education,” Brizzi said.
For Counties Not Chosen, Work On Pre-K Will Continue
In the counties that were not chosen, educators are not sitting around waiting for the state to complete that study. Hilda Burns helped write Howard County’s statement of readiness as a part of the pilot program application process. The county wasn’t selected in the end, but Hilda says the need for pre-k is still great.
“Presently in Howard County, 42 percent of children between birth and five years of age are living in poverty,” Burns said. “Therefore there are a large number of 4-year-olds in Howard County that are not currently attending a quality preschool program because they don’t have the funds.”
Not being chosen after weeks of preparing the application, Burns says the emphasis on preschool in Howard County won’t disappear.
“Oh no,” she said. “In fact, whether we receive these funds or not I think it helps us move in the right direction. That’s where we all are working, for the mission and vision of early education. I think anytime you bring a group together, there’s a renewed energy and focus, and I think we will only get better because of it.”
This sentiment is not unique to those in Howard County.
Brown County was knocked out of the running early on in the process. The county didn’t meet many of the initial requirements to host the program, including not having any providers rated at a Level 3 or 4 under the state’s Paths to Quality ranking system.
But according to the Alan Kosinski, director of student services at Brown County Schools, that’s because the preschool program run through the school district is the only option for families.
And despite not qualifying for the state-run preschool program, Kosinski says the school district started conversations with a local foundation to provide preschool funding to Brown County’s low-income families.
“I think the awareness that was growing because of the Department of Education and State of Indiana initiative it kind of came to mind,” Kosinski said. “It had a higher visibility that’s going on, how can we get all of our kids into preschool.”
For Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties that were selected, the next year will be spent recruiting families to the program and working with local providers who will serve the pre-k students.