On a typical day inside Mary Oliver’s classroom at School 48, a dozen or so three-and four-year-olds are using play dough to create shapes, stacking blocks in towers on the floor and playing games on the iPad.

It’s not play time. This is what learning looks like in preschool.

Molding play dough helps build the dexterity necessary to handle pencils and scissors. Balancing toy blocks develops spatial skills and hand-eye coordination. iPads require kids to learn how to do an isolated finger point.

“Everyone assumes that preschool is all play, but what they don’t understand is the kids are learning the whole time,” Oliver said. “Preschool is practice for the real thing.”

So much of the debate about preschool over the past year has been focused on the statehouse, where a small statewide pilot program passed last spring, and on the Indianapolis City-County Council, which is expected to approve its own plan to aid poor families with city and philanthropic aid to help pay their preschool costs.

But well before those debates began to swell over how to expand preschool opportunity in the city — and who should pay for it — Indianapolis Public Schools had taken matters into its own hands.

In one of his last acts as IPS superintendent, Eugene White pushed an ambitious plan for more preschool seats in more schools in 2013. Then his successor, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, declared earlier this year that he wanted to go further, offering universal preschool for all four-year-olds in the district within the next five years, with a goal that all IPS students could have exposure to a teacher like Oliver before starting kindergarten.

IPS looks even more likely to lead the next preschool expansion under a newly elected school board, with three new board members taking office in January. Several of them, as well as those still on the board, have said they are eager to use preschool as a primary tool for improving test scores down the road — but only if it can get past serious financial obstacles.

District leaders still aren’t exactly sure what a universal preschool program would look like at IPS — or what they can afford.  IPS’s preschool program currently has capacity to serve about 900 kids — or just about a third the number of kids who later enroll in kindergarten each fall.

The district already has redirected $3 million in federal Title I grant money to support its preschool program, and IPS in 2015 will be asking the state legislature to expand state support beyond the small preschool pilot program it passed earlier this year. That program is expected to serve about 100 students countywide starting in January. But lawmakers have expressed reluctance to add more state aid to the program in the next two-year state budget.

“We haven’t put all the pieces of that together yet,” said IPS deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said.

Building toward universal preschool in IPS is one of several efforts that have combined to build momentum to improve early childhood education in Indianapolis.

Beside district efforts and the state pilot, city leaders expect their own program to serve at least 700 kids starting in 2016 thanks to a compromise between Mayor Greg Ballard and City-County Council Democrats Indianapolis. Corporate leaders are increasingly adding major financial support to programs that support preschool, most notably a nearly $23 million grant from Lilly Endowment to Early Learning Indiana to support more high quality preschools to open across the state.

Renewed energy for preschool in IPS

Principal Linda Hogan oversees the hallways at School 102, also known as Francis Bellamy Preschool Center, where IPS teachers help four-year-olds arrange themselves in neat, quiet lines — they call the line-up practice “hugs and bubbles” — as they walk to and from the lunch room and other activities.

It hasn’t always been this way. Once an elementary school, the East side building closed because of declining enrollment and was empty of students until last year.

Similarly, support and funding for preschool in the district has fluctuated over the years.

The district has long had an early education program for special education students. Since 2012, it has also operated a preschool program at School 60 in partnership with Butler University and St. Mary’s Child Center.

And for more than a decade, the district hosted the federally funded Even Start program, which provided early education programs for kids as young as two years old, and job training and GED programs for their parents in the same building. But after federal funding ran out, the district had trouble sustaining the program.

“They spent every day in the classroom interacting with their children,” Hogan said, praising the defunct program. “You had that connection with the parents.”

Support for expanding preschool started building again two years ago, when White announced big plans to establish all-day preschool at more than 10 schools. He wanted to serve 1,400 students, but that plan was scaled back to about half the size because of the district’s budget woes.

When Ferebee was hired last year, he made a renewed push for preschool. Legrand said the district sees it as a strategy to improve student performance all across the district.

“One huge benefit we’ll see is the early experience and exposure to literacy,” Legrand said. “More kids reading on grade level will eventually improve the dropout rate.”

Finding more money

The new school board may be poised to embrace more preschool, but paying for it isn’t easy.

“I’m a huge supporter of universal preschool, but it’s going to come down to whether or not the funding’s there,” said newly elected school board member Kelly Bentley. “Whatever happens, it has to be stable, long-term funding.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those who think IPS has not been aggressive enough. When board members voted in the spring to spend $2 million to expand the program by 25 percent, and add classes to nearly 15 buildings, board member Sam Odle said he didn’t think it was moving fast enough.

Odle said the district should try to harness the philanthropic support surging in the community around preschool. Others believe the state should take responsibility for offering preschool for the poorest children. Bentley said the district should partner with other preschools in the community as a way to expand its preschool seats without breaking the bank.

“There’s some great preschool programs already out there,” Bentley said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

As district leaders and politicians grapple with how to expand preschool, teachers say a solution can’t come soon enough.

Oliver said she has students starting at the schools who can’t count to 10 and don’t know the letters of the alphabet. Some struggle to spell their own names.

“It’s about time,” Oliver said of expanded preschool. “It’s been proven how amazing having preschool is and what it can do for students and for families. I feel like we’re so far behind on that. Let’s get it in place … and get the right people behind it.”