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.”

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.