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.”

farewell

Head of Denver Preschool Program resigning after more than five years

PHOTO: Eric Lutzens/Denver Post
Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program

Jennifer Landrum, who oversaw the Denver Preschool Program for the last five and a half years, announced Friday that she’s leaving for personal reasons.

During Landrum’s tenure, Denver voters increased the sales tax that supports the program, allowing it to cover summer tuition costs and serve more children, and extended it through 2026. Landrum also oversaw the redesign of the tuition credit scale, expanded scholarships and awards for teachers and directors to better support quality improvement efforts, and developed a new strategic plan.

Landrum said she was leaving not for a new job but to take care of herself and her family after experiencing “extreme loss.”

“I need time to pause, reflect and recharge,” she wrote in an email to supporters of the program.

The Denver Preschool Program provides tuition subsidies that scale according to family income and preschool quality for students in the year before they enter kindergarten. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools. The program also supports quality improvement efforts, including for younger students, part of a broader shift in focus in the early childhood sector. It is funded by a voter-approved 0.15 percent sales tax and has become a model for communities around the state.

“Jennifer has served with vision, boldness, and a constant and deep commitment to improving the lives of Denver’s young children and supporting Denver families,” preschool program board chair Chris Watney wrote in an email. “The board, staff, and community are going to miss her in this role. The board of directors firmly supports Jennifer’s decision and wishes her all the best.”

Deputy Director Ellen Braun will serve as the interim director while the board conducts a search process for a new leader this spring.

Meet Reggio Emilia

Power to the kids: A preschool approach imported from Italy comes to public schools in Denver

PHOTO: Courtesy of Boulder Journey School

Boulder Journey School feels different from most other child care centers almost as soon as you walk through the door. In the hallways, there’s a kid-sized mail-sorting station, a giant metal spaceship trimmed with white and green lights, and a child-designed memorial for the school’s chickens, who were killed by raccoons a few years ago.

Preschoolers there help decide what and how they learn, drawing on their interests, imagination, and environment. Which means trying out adult-style jobs, building 10-foot-tall contraptions, and even talking about death are all par for the course.

“Rather than covering the curriculum, we’re uncovering the curriculum with the children in the classroom,” said Alison Maher, Boulder Journey’s executive director.

It’s all part of the school’s Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to early education — one that prizes play-based and project-based learning, grounded in the local community. At least two public preschools in Denver will soon begin using the approach.

Early childhood leaders in Denver see the adoption of Reggio in district classrooms as a milestone that brings a celebrated approach typically found in private preschool programs to a diverse group of children in the public sphere.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A spaceship designed by preschoolers at the Boulder Journey School.

Next fall, with help from Maher and other partners, a new Reggio Emilia-inspired child care center and preschool will open in a facility called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. A new preschool program planned for Inspire Elementary School in the Stapleton neighborhood will also use the Reggio approach, which school leaders said ties in well with the expeditionary learning focus in other grades.

“Denver has been a bold city around early childhood,” said Rebecca Kantor, dean of the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado Denver, a partner in the work at Z Place. And adopting the Reggio approach is a “continuation of that bold theme.”

Denver isn’t the first community to incorporate Reggio principles into public classrooms. Early education programs in Boston, Indianapolis, and Tucson, among other cities, have implemented them, but the approach is hardly widespread.

At Z Place, the student body will include some children in the federally funded Head Start preschool program. School leaders say that there are special challenges when adapting Reggio for taxpayer-funded classrooms because of additional state and federal regulations governing everything from technology use to how children are assessed. Still, they believe it’s doable since Reggio is a philosophy of teaching and learning, rather than a prescriptive program.

In addition to Z Place and Inspire, Denver district officials may also bring Reggio to two programs in South Denver in 2020: The Stephen Knight Center for Early Education, which includes preschool and kindergarten, and Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrant and refugee students that will soon be getting new preschool space.

Lisa Roy, executive director of the Denver Public Schools’ early education department, said incorporating Reggio principles into preschools in different neighborhoods advances the district’s plan to offer high-quality school choice options throughout the city.

Currently, most district-affiliated preschools use what’s called the Creative Curriculum, a research-based curriculum popular nationwide. About 15 use a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which emphasizes social-emotional skills. Another handful uses the Montessori method, in which students in multiage classrooms learn at their own pace with the help of special educational materials. In addition to using the Reggio philosophy, the Z Place program will incorporate Montessori principles and emphasize the inclusion of students with disabilities alongside typically developing children.

Unlike Montessori, which is named for its founder, Italian educator Maria Montessori, Reggio Emilia is named for a place — that is, the northern Italian city where the educational philosophy first emerged after World War II. That’s because learning about and through the local community figures prominently into the approach, even for the smallest children.

For example, in Molly Lyne’s toddler classroom at Boulder Journey School, “bus” is the name of the game these days. That’s because city buses and school buses often pass by the playground just outside her room — regularly piquing the interest of her 1-year-old charges who watch the vehicles through holes in the fence and often blurt out the word “bus.”

To capitalize on their interest, Lyne and her two assistant teachers sometimes project a video on the wall showing what it’s like to be on a moving bus, from showing the traffic passing by to a simulation of the loud, creaky lurch passengers hear when the bus stops. Like all the technology used at the school, the video isn’t meant for the kids to sit and watch quietly. It’s intended as a backdrop and inspiration for their play.

Older students at Boulder Journey get even more opportunity to interact with the community. When a new pizza restaurant opened near the school several years ago, preschoolers got to visit — taking photos and interviewing restaurant patrons. They also offered up a critique: The restaurant didn’t quite work for little kids — the stools didn’t spin, for example, and the toilets in the bathroom were too high. Back at school, the children fashioned their own ideal restaurant furnishings out of clay, a collection featured at the pizzeria for a time and now displayed in the school hallway.

“It’s not only getting kids ready to read at third grade proficiently, but it’s for them to become citizens, owners of their community … and understand how their neighborhoods are different from other neighborhoods in the city,” said Roy, who last year visited Reggio Emilia schools in Italy with a delegation from Boulder Journey School and the University of Colorado Denver.

Maher said there’s a common misconception that Reggio-inspired schools are unstructured.

“People think because children have a voice in their education, in the way the day’s organized, in the projects that are developed, that the teachers are invisible and hands-off, and that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a highly structured dance between children and adults to make sure all voices are represented.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
The “materials room” Boulder Journey School.

At Reggio schools, you won’t likely see any commercially produced alphabet charts, daily schedules, or cartoony posters. Many Boulder Journey classrooms have attractive blond wood furniture, colorful light tables and aquariums full of fish. The “materials room,” where kids can craft and create, is a feast for the eyes — with wood, colorful fabric, tubes, lids and other supplies arranged neatly on white shelves that line bright orange walls.

Maher said people who tour her school tend to think she has a big budget because the school is beautifully appointed. But many of the school’s decorations and supplies are inexpensive, everyday items that can be found around town, she said.

Maher acknowledges that being in Boulder, an affluent community northwest of Denver, means a wealthier pool of families. About 20 percent of her students receive some kind of help paying tuition, which is about $1,300 a month for a preschooler who attends four hours a day, five days a week.

The percentage of students who need financial assistance will be higher at the Denver programs’ adopting the approach next year. A little over one-third of Inspire’s student body come from low-income families, and the new Z Place program will likely serve a high proportion of such students.

At Inspire, there are already two teachers with training in Reggio, both graduates of a special masters degree program run by the University of Colorado Denver and Boulder Journey School.

One of them is Sarah McCarty, a kindergarten teacher who had never heard of Reggio before she entered the program. She believes the approach, in addition to helping kids build creativity, work collaboratively and develop problem-solving skills, instills a love of learning.

“I’ve never seen a kid who, when they got to do what they wanted, wasn’t happy about it,” she said.