early childhood

Mike Pence passed up a big federal preschool grant. Now Indiana could have a second shot

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence created an uproar when, at the last minute, he nixed Indiana’s chance for up to $80 million in federal dollars to develop the state’s fledgling public prekindergarten program.

But later, as On My Way Pre-K grew, Pence acknowledged that the federal grant could be “a good fit.” And now, Indiana could have another shot at those dollars.

The application for the next round of the federal preschool grant was expected to open Tuesday. Early childhood education advocates, who are pushing again to expand On My Way Pre-K, are watching to see if Indiana’s current governor, Eric Holcomb, will pursue the funds — which could be a key piece of making pre-K more broadly available across the state.

“It’s high time our state caught up with the rest of the nation,” said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, one of the state’s most influential supporters of early childhood education. “Surely federal grant funding could make a significant impact in providing much-needed high-quality pre-K for low-income 4-year-olds in our state.”

Holcomb, who has been supportive of pre-K expansion, hadn’t decided whether Indiana will apply for the federal grant, a spokeswoman wrote in an email last week. His office was waiting to see the details of the grant’s requirements in the application.

Some of the political fight around the expansion of pre-K in Indiana has died down since Pence took his stand, in part because of the progress of On My Way Pre-K. But Holcomb will likely still have to weigh similar tensions: How much should Indiana invest in pre-K, and how quickly?

The federal Preschool Development Grant could be used to craft Indiana’s game plan for expanding early learning opportunities, by conducting a statewide needs assessment and coordinating existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description.

In that way, this version of the grant is significantly different from the one Pence walked away from. In the past, in other states, the grant funded thousands of new and improved pre-K slots or created new programs.

Pence had initially backed out of the federal grant application in 2014, saying he had concerns about “strings” that could come with it. “When it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion,” a statement from his office said at the time.

Two years later, Pence changed his stance, reaching out to federal authorities to ask about the next opening for the grant. Pence said he felt the state had built the supports to further expand the program. He explained that, in pushing for Indiana to launch a public pre-K program, he had promised lawmakers to “not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working.”

But one expert says the federal grant still could have helped Indiana take steps to improve pre-K quality, particularly with instruction and curriculum, and that the infusion of federal dollars wouldn’t have necessarily forced a fast expansion.

“Indiana really missed out on the initial opportunity to focus on quality, to start small and then put some dollars in place over subsequent years to be able to build on that and expand,” said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a think tank.

In the new round of this grant, up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million to conduct a statewide needs assessment, develop a strategic prekindergarten plan, maximize parental choice, and improve the quality of programs. States have until Oct. 15 to apply, and the funds — almost $250 million in total — would be awarded in mid-December.

On My Way Pre-K, the state’s program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, currently serves about 4,000 children in 20 counties. About three years into the program, state lawmakers roughly doubled the amount of funding for the program to $22 million this year. That doubled the number of students served each year and expanded the program’s reach to more parts of the state.

The city of Indianapolis, with corporate and philanthropic matching dollars, is spending $40 million over five years to fund pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Indiana also has federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs that last year served about 14,000 children from low-income families, and the federal Child Care and Development Fund program helps nearly 32,000 children receive care.

Advocates say they want to see continued expansion with a focus on quality. Early Learning Indiana, an advocacy organization, estimates that about 160,000 children ages 3 to 5 years old need some type of care because their parents are working. Just a small fraction of all preschool-aged children in Indiana — about 15 percent — are enrolled in high-quality care, the group said.

While Indiana has made strides toward improving early childhood education, parts of the state still lack access to high-quality preschool, said Early Learning Indiana director of public affairs Jeff Harris.

“Indiana has done a nice job of really focusing on quality,” he said. “It’s a matter of growing it strategically and responsibly to make sure we have those high outcomes.”

Correction: August 15, 2018: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the grant application process opened Tuesday. That was the original schedule, but it was then pushed back.

Hope Starts Here

Two foundations announced ‘Hope Starts Here’ to improve the lives of Detroit’s young children. Here’s how they’re spending their money

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

When the ambitious Hope Starts Here initiative kicked off a year ago with the news that two major foundations would spend $50 million to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children, much of the coverage focused on what would be shiny and new.

The 10-year early childhood “framework” put forward by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations called for a significant effort to expand preschool offerings, including new schools and funding streams that would make it possible to create more programs for kids.

The effort called for major policy initiatives, such as a universal screening program that would identify young children with disabilities or developmental delays. It called for a citywide testing program that would measure how ready children are to start kindergarten.

But as the two foundations (which also fund Chalkbeat) have begun to dig in over the last year, their early investments have focused primarily on improving existing programs, rather than just creating new ones.  

“We’ve learned we have to be able walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Khalilah Burt Gaston, the Michigan program officer for Kellogg, which spent more than half of its $25 million commitment in the last year. “While you’re planning and while you’re listening, you have to be able to think about ongoing community engagement.”

The two foundations are talking with Mayor Mike Duggan as he explores the possibility of universal pre-K, meaning free preschool for all city 4-year-olds. An advocacy network of parents and providers is coming together to push for major policy changes at the city, state, and federal levels.  

And there is at least one new facility in the works — an early childhood center on the campus of Marygrove College that will be part of a new Kresge-funded “cradle to career” campus. Plans call for the center, expected to open in 2020, to also help preschools and childcare centers in the neighborhood.

But the first grants by the two foundations under Hope Starts Here have largely focused on schools and programs that already existed.

Tuesday, Kresge plans to announce $2.2 million in grants to nine organizations that are providing arts and cultural programing, mental health services, or fresh and healthy food to preschools around Detroit.

The money, the largest share of the $3.9 million Kresge has put toward Hope Starts Here so far, is to help preschool owners and people who operate child care programs offer better programming. Many providers, whether they charge tuition or get state or federal funding, often struggle to make enough money to provide much more than a basic curriculum, said Wendy Lewis Jackson, the managing director of Kresge’s Detroit program.

Kellogg has put the money it’s spent so far on Hope Starts Here into training preschool teachers, improving facilities, and helping low-income families pay for  high quality childcare.

That includes a program that works with preschools to help them improve their standing on a state quality rating system; a scholarship program that gives money to families that don’t meet state or federal requirements for free childcare but need help to afford private tuition; and, a program to renovate 12-14 preschools with what Gaston called “an HGTV-style remodel project.”

Another effort is focused on improving the quality of care offered by in-home providers and family members who are often unlicensed but do the bulk of early child care in communities across the country.

Gaston said the early focus on existing programs emerged from the yearlong listening sessions the two foundations held in 2016 and 2017.

“What we learned listening to parents, to politicians, listening to Lansing, is that people don’t know where quality currently exists in the city and two people may have a different perception about quality in Detroit so we want to make sure that what we currently have is moving the needle toward higher quality,” Gaston said.

Kellogg isn’t just backing preschools. The foundation also announced a $3 million Hope Starts Here grant for the Detroit Public Schools Community District that funds a parent academy, a kindergarten bootcamp and a home visit program that sends educators to children’s homes.

By early next year, the people behind Hope Starts Here plan to launch a website that will track progress on each of its 15 strategies and 26 policy priorities. The online “dashboard” will also track movement on some of the alarming statistics that led to Hope Starts Here in the first place. That includes the city’s alarmingly infant mortality high rate, its high rates of babies with low birth weights and the fact that almost 30,000 young Detroiters have no access to high-quality preschool or child care.

Statistics like that contribute to learning problems later on that partly explain why the vast majority of Detroit third-graders — more than 80 percent — aren’t reading at grade level.

At some point, Hope Starts Here could be managed by a centralized entity. Ideas have included an office connected with city government, or one that would be a freestanding non-profit.

“That’s part of the sorting that needs to occur on this so we get the right kind of structure going forward,” Jackson said, noting that Hope Starts Here is currently run by a “stewardship” board.

“The stewardship board is committed to making sure that there’s a comprehensive and sustainable solutions so they’re’ taking all of that into account,” Jackson said.  

As Hope Starts Here enters its next phase, the foundations behind it say the challenge has been staying focused while staring down a massive to-do list in a city where extreme poverty and intensive need makes the work seem urgent.

“The biggest challenge has been the vastness of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Gaston said. “System building work is not sexy. It’s just not but it’s vitally important for us to have a coordinated, high-quality effective system.”

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.