Early Childhood

Limited funding means thousands of poor Indy kids won’t get preschool scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Thousands of Indianapolis families vying for preschool scholarships will be disappointed this spring. More than 4,200 hundred children applied for spots in a program that’s expected to serve about 1,600 kids.

With studies showing that whether a child enrolls in preschool is an influential predictor of school readiness and long-term success, interest in a program that covers tuition for low-income three- and four-year-olds in Indiana has vastly outpaced the number of vouchers available.

Applications dipped slightly this year — about 700 fewer qualified children applied to participate in the program since last year — but there are still far more children needing scholarships than money available to help them. That includes children who applied for both a state-funded program and one that’s a partnership between the City of Indianapolis and private donors. Both programs have the same application process

“There’s a significant gap in how many kids we’re able to serve versus how many want and need high quality pre-k,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit childcare provider and advocacy organization.

The scholarships are a big step forward for early childhood education in Indiana, which didn’t receive state funding until recently. But the number of kids served is still a sliver of the need in Marion County, which has more than 27,000 preschool-age children.

Decades of research show that high-quality preschool programs not only give kids better academic and social skills when they enter kindergarten, but also have long-lasting benefits. Low-income children who go to preschool stay in school longer, earn more money and may even be less likely to commit crimes.

There also are immediate economic benefits because the cost of childcare, which can be more than $10,000 per year, is a huge burden for low-income families, Maple said. The Indiana preschool vouchers target families earning less than 127 percent of the federal poverty limit, which is $30,861 for a family of four. The city program gives scholarships to families who make up to $44,955.

For Charlene Fletcher-Brown — a single mother whose daughter won the preschool voucher lottery last year — the scholarship has helped her afford basics, like clothing and gas.

“It’s been amazing not to have to worry about how I could afford childcare,” Fletcher-Brown said.

When it comes to preschool, Indiana is behind the curve. Before the state created its preschool pilot program in 2014, it was one of just nine states in the nation without any funding for preschool. Enrollment is also anemic in Indiana — just 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-old Hoosiers attend preschool. In Illinois, the enrollment rate is 54 percent, according to census data.

“Indiana has lots of neighbors to learn from,” said Laura Bornfreund, a researcher with the New America Foundation.

Some states are rapidly expanding their preschool programs. Some major cities like New York have made free pre-kindergarten available to all four-year-olds. Indiana is a long way from implementing a sweeping program like that, but Bornfreund said that beginning with a pilot and then scaling it up can help ensure that the preschools serving kids are high-quality.

She cautions, however, that the state needs to have a plan for ongoing expansion.

A strong push for expansion is on the horizon. Preschool advocates are planning to lobby aggressively for more state preschool funding during the upcoming session, said Andrew Cullen, the vice-president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana.

After three years of pilots, the state has learned how to reach families and improve preschool quality, said Cullen.

“We’ve have learned a lot from the pilot,” he said. “That’s what the pilot was there for, so it’s time now to talk significantly about an expansion.”

Preschool has won bipartisan support but there have been hitches along the way. The state scholarship pilot was championed by Gov. Mike Pence, who worked to win approval from reluctant legislators. In 2014, however, he made a controversial decision not to apply for up to $80 million in federal funding for preschool.

The scholarships available to children in Marion County are heavily funded by local and private sources. In addition to the state funding — $10 million across the five pilot counties — the city’s program pools government dollars with corporate and philanthropic donations that add up to $8 million a year.

That approach has significantly boosted preschool access in the city, but advocates say that for expanded preschool to be sustainable in the long-term, the state must provide more funding — not rely on corporate and philanthropic donations.

“Just like we don’t expect Eli Lilly or United Way to pay tuition for K-12, we can’t expect Eli Lilly or United Way to pay tuition for pre-k,” Cullen said. “That’s fundamentally government’s role.”

We'll come to you

They started as an experiment in rural areas. Now, mobile preschools are rolling into metro Denver.

PHOTO: Pat Sudmeier
Children attend preschool in Gus the Bus in Garfield County.

In several of Colorado’s rural communities, some children have long attended preschool in specially equipped mobile classrooms with names like Gus the Bus, Magic Bus and El Busesito.

The rolling preschools, which travel to apartment complexes or mobile home parks a couple times per week, are seen as an innovative way to reach children who can’t access traditional bricks-and-mortar preschools.

Now, they’re coming to the Front Range.

Last spring, a mobile preschool rolled into the northern Denver suburbs, and the city itself could eventually get one, too. Officials at Mile High United Way are exploring the concept and Denver school district leaders say they hope to join the project if it moves forward.

“It’s no surprise there is a lack of both affordable and accessible high-quality early childhood education in our community,” said Karla Maraccini, vice president of community impact and strategy at Mile High United Way. “One of the solutions we’re exploring is mobile preschool.”

Such programs aren’t widespread in Colorado or the nation, but the meet-them-where-they-are approach has plenty of precedents. Think bookmobiles or mobile blood drives. Advocates say mobile preschools represent a valuable school readiness initiative for young children cut off from traditional early education experiences.

“Mobile can be used in so many ways. I think of the food trucks, how that’s been kind of a revolution,” said Logan Hood, who manages the Preschool on Wheels program in Garfield County in western Colorado. “When you come to that person’s community and you’re willing to open your doors … it’s lasting.”

Rany Elissa and Alexa Garrido, the husband-wife team that recently launched the mobile preschool program in Federal Heights north of Denver, said they plan to acquire another bus and expand their program to nearby Thornton in 2019. They’re also looking at Denver, possibly in Park Hill or a neighborhood in northwest Denver, and have had discussions with Mile High United Way on the topic.

The pair, which separately run a company that provides tutoring and other services to K-12 students across the state, said seeing the academic struggles of older students convinced them they needed to start earlier. That’s why they spent more than $200,000 to gut a 19-passenger bus and remake it into a preschool space with a bathroom, running water, heat and air-conditioning.

The colorfully painted bus spends most weekdays at the Denver Cascade Mobile Home Park, where eight children attend morning preschool and another eight attend in the afternoon. The children, all English language learners, attend the year-round program four days a week.

Many participating families walk to the bus each day, shut out of local building-based preschools that are full, or that they can’t afford or can’t reach, Garrido said.

Large swaths of Adams County, where Federal Heights is located, are considered child care deserts because the number of young children far exceeds the number of child care and preschool slots, according to a 2017 report from the Center For American Progress.

Parts of Denver have that designation as well and additional city data show fewer than a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in certain areas, including parts of north Denver, far northeast Denver, and a few neighborhoods along the city’s eastern border with Jefferson County.

Elissa and Garrido’s program, Right On Mobile Education, is one of four mobile programs licensed by the state, which means it meets basic health and safety standards.

The Magic Bus preschool program in Eagle County, which launched in 2007, serves 82 children for four hours a week with a bus and a motor home. The Preschool on Wheels program, a project of the Aspen Community Foundation in neighboring Garfield County, serves 80 children for six hours a week with two buses — Gus the Bus and the Sunshine Bus. Families there pay $5 a month to participate. El Busesito, or the Little Bus, which operates in both Garfield and Eagle, serves 96 children for five hours a week with three buses.

While Colorado’s mobile preschool operators emphasize the pains they take to ensure quality — using reputable curriculums, incorporating social-emotional learning and employing credentialed bilingual teachers — the programs don’t get a quality rating from the state the way building-based preschools do.

State officials, who only began licensing mobile preschools in 2016, said too many factors in the rating system don’t match up with the mobile preschool model. They said that the rating system, called Colorado Shines, might eventually cover mobile preschools.

Generally, mobile preschool classes run for a shorter time than building-based classes, but leaders say they still help kids make big learning gains.

At that age, “their brains are like little sponges,” said Deb Dutmar, manager of the Magic Bus program for the Vail Valley Foundation. “Even that concentrated time with them singing songs, doing circle time, having a snack, reading a book, having play time … just those two days a week, it’s amazing how they grow.”

But mobile programs, which include parent workshops and home visits, aren’t cheap. Plus, they usually don’t qualify for government dollars that support traditional preschools, and families pay nothing or only a tiny fee to participate. In other words, they require lots of grants and donations to stay afloat.

The Magic Bus program costs $280,000 and Preschool on Wheels costs $350,000 a year. Hood, manager of the Preschool On Wheels program, said she spends lots of time fund-raising and, when she fields calls from other communities, emphasizes the need to find sustainable funding.

Both Hood and Dutmar say they routinely get calls from all over the country — Hawaii, Maryland, Louisiana, California and elsewhere — from people wanting to hear more about mobile preschools.

It’s important to consider community needs in developing such programs, Hood said, “It’s not saying, ‘This is cute. Let’s do this.’”

Beyond finances, mobile preschools present logistical challenges, too.

One mobile preschool program in Oakland, California, thought to be the first in an urban setting during its pilot phase in 2015, was discontinued a year later.

Elise Darwish, who was an administrator at the charter school network operating the bus when the program launched but not when it ended, said she believes the amount of regulation and red tape involved in running the program led to its demise.

Ensuring basic sanitation can be a stumbling block, too. Since Dutmar has one Magic Bus without a bathroom, it must be parked near a public restroom. Especially in the winter, bundling up wiggly children just for a bathroom break eats up a lot of time, she said. The good news is the foundation just finished its fund-raising campaign for a second Magic Bus motor home, which will arrive bathroom-equipped next summer.

Elissa and Garrido faced their own share of logistical headaches when they decided to launch their mobile program. They quickly realized that most city zoning rules don’t easily accommodate mobile preschools.

“No one knew what to do with us,” Elissa said. “We were not a food truck. We were not selling anything.”

Eventually, they found a passionate advocate in the mayor of Federal Heights and successfully navigated the city’s zoning ordinances. By next summer, they hope to add a second bus that will offer preschool at the Woodland Hills mobile home park in Thornton.

Denver, they hope, won’t be far behind.

the youngest learners

Most of Indiana is a licensed child care ‘desert’ for infants and toddlers, new report says

PHOTO: Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

Most of Indiana has a severe shortage of licensed child care for infants and toddlers, meaning the state’s youngest children potentially lack options for early learning during a critical time in their development, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress.

In Indiana, the capacity of licensed child care centers and homes only covers 12 percent of the state’s 245,000 infants and toddlers, the report said. Or, to put it another way, there are more than eight infants and toddlers for every licensed child care spot.

The shortages are more pronounced in rural and lower-income areas, according to the report from the left-leaning, Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy organization.

“It’s the most important time for these kids in terms of their development and in terms of their ability to set themselves up for quality learning environments later on in preschool and elementary school,” said study co-author Rasheed Malik, senior policy analyst for early childhood policy.

One of the most severe shortages outlined in the report is in Adams County, southeast of Fort Wayne along the Ohio state line, where licensed child care providers have only 18 spots for the county’s 2,058 infants and toddlers.

Not every infant and toddler needs child care, and not every family will choose a licensed option. But these “child care deserts,” as the report calls them, can limit families’ access to early childhood programs where children’s interactions with caregivers “have long-term effects that lay the groundwork for healthy socio-emotional regulation, learning ability, and resilience,” the report said.

For working families, the shortage can also make it difficult to find child care while parents are at their jobs.

The report, which uses state data on licensed child care providers, doesn’t include small, unlicensed in-home providers, arrangements with family members, or church preschools.

Still, Malik said even though the report doesn’t capture the full scope of child care in Indiana, it’s a measure for the market that shows a need for more child care options for young children.

Numbers from the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee also illustrate a shortage in high-quality programs for the youngest children: While an estimated 160,000 children ages 0 to 2 need care, only 16,000 infants and toddlers are in high-quality programs.

Infant and toddler care can be much harder to find and more expensive than early childhood options for 3- or 4-year-olds, costing about $10,000 to more than $11,000 per year, according to the committee’s estimates.

The high costs of providing care for infants and toddlers is likely what fuels the shortage of options, Malik said. In contrast, he said, options for 3- and 4-year-olds are on the rise because of increasing state and local investments in prekindergarten.

Among the Center for American Progress report’s recommendations is greater public investment in child care for infants and toddlers.

“These are our most precious resource, and research has told us every dollar spent there is well rewarded for society,” Malik said.