Tippecanoe County hopes to make pre-K pilot cut

Two 2-year-olds work on arts and crafts at a Right Steps day care facility in West Lafayette.
Two 2-year-olds work on arts and crafts at a Right Steps day care facility in West Lafayette.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Another step in a long process for Indiana’s pre-K pilot program begins Thursday morning, as community leaders and parents across the state participate in the first of two informational web seminars, or webinars. The webinars will lay out the future of the program. Eighteen finalist counties, including Tippecanoe County, were chosen June 4.

Of the 18 finalists, five counties will be selected to participate in the program. The state’s Family and Social Services Administration will make the announcement in July.

“Early childhood education is number one for me,” said Jessie Donchess, whose 4-year-old son Jack would qualify for the program if it comes to Tippecanoe County. “I think that the more you teach your children, the better opportunity they have in life.”

The pre-K pilot was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence on March 27. The state allocated $10 million for pre-K classes for eligible low-income children in the five selected counties. An additional $5 million raised from private donors will also go toward enrollment, though it’s unclear exactly who those donors will be in every county.

As many as 6,000 low-income children could benefit from the program statewide, according to Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration’s website. For the purposes of this program, the state defines “low-income” as households that make less than 127% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $30,289 per year.

“It would be amazing [to be a part of the program],” said Donchess, a single mother of two who also takes classes at Ivy Tech. “It would give me the opportunity to have that little bit of extra money to do other things with my children.”

Parents and legislators have been paying more attention to early childhood education in recent years, after many studies have cited its benefits. One study published in 2013 from the non-partisan Society for Research in Child Development said ECE shows real benefits for children.

“Robust evidence suggests that a year or two of center-based ECE…will improve children’s early language, literacy and mathematics skills,” the study found.

Jack Donchess is able to attend Right Steps day care in Lafayette because his mother enrolled in the state’s pre-K voucher program. Between Jack and her other son, Sam, Jessie Donchess pays about $100 a month for day care, but the state covers most of the cost.

Trisha Morehouse, a mother of two, also uses the state’s voucher. She said early childhood education wouldn’t be possible without it. If the pre-K pilot comes to Tippecanoe County, she hopes to enroll her son Isaic.

“He knows more,” Morehouse said. “He can tell me what he sees, what color it is. He can count more. There’s just a lot more he can do [in school], than if I try to teach him from home.”

The five pilot counties will be chosen based on a number of factors including private funding support, qualified day care capacity, total county population and geographic area.

The state will allow only a select group of providers manage the program in the chosen counties. Public schools, accredited private schools and day care providers who have received the state’s Paths to QUALITY Level 3 or Level 4 certification, such as Right Steps, are all qualified.

Despite the range of facilities, capacity remains an issue. Locally, the program could help hundreds of children who may or may not be currently enrolled in pre-K. But early estimates show about 150 new spots will need to be created in Tippecanoe County, if the program is put in place.

“I don’t think there are 150 slots available in Level 3 and Level 4 providers,” said Marilyn Redmon, executive director or Right Steps Child Development Centers.

Redmon supports the program, because it will help families who are falling through the cracks.

“Roughly 45 percent of [local] children who show up at kindergarten are not assessed as being ready to succeed,” said James Taylor, the chief executive officer of United Way of Greater Lafayette. Taylor hopes increased enrollment in pre-K programs, especially among low-income children, will boost learning by the time they get to kindergarten.

Even before the pre-K pilot was signed into law, Donchess knew Indiana was a better place for her children because of the current voucher program. She moved to Tippecanoe County from Idaho.

“Where I was living before — it was a resort community — sending your child to preschool was for the rich,” Donchess said.

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