Inside the colorful classroom at Early Learning Community preschool, the building blocks of a successful education are coming together.
Students sing songs to learn about letter sounds and rhyming to help them better understand reading. Puzzles and question games strengthen problem-solving abilities. Children practice recognizing numbers, begin to understand basic science ideas about plants, rocks and animals, and work together to clean up at the end of each session.
The skills these kids learn every day will help lay the foundation for kindergarten and beyond, said Dawn Underwood, director of Early Learning Community.
With the help of a new statewide program, educators are hoping more parents are able to take advantage of preschool for their children.
As of July, Johnson County families are eligible to receive funding through On My Way Pre-K, a grant program that helps fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The program offers an important tool to parents, ensuring that all children have access to quality pre-K schooling.
Months after becoming available in the county, local leaders are concerned not enough people recognize how much it can help. Johnson County only had 25 children enrolled in the grant program at the end of August. Eight children were signed up in July, and another 17 had been accepted into it in August.
"It’s very exciting for Johnson County," Underwood said. "What’s really important is that families in this county know that this is an opportunity for them. We need to make sure families know this is new, we have it, and they can take advantage of it."
On My Way Pre-K is the state’s preschool pilot program. The project was originally founded in 2014 with 381 randomly selected 4-year-old children in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. Out of this pilot group, 57 percent of the children had not attended any childcare or preschool program the previous year.
They represented some of the most educationally needy Indiana children, with lower skill levels than their peers, according to a 2018 report from the Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning.
But those students were found to have gained significant skills, said Nicole Norvell, director of Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.
“Our research tells us that On My Way Pre-K children make higher gains than their peers in important aspects of school readiness such as language comprehension, early literacy, executive functioning and a reduction in behavior problems in the classroom,” she said in a news release.
On My Way Pre-K was expanded to 20 counties. Then in May, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed legislation making it available in all Indiana counties.
In order to be eligible, children must be 4 years old as of Aug. 1. They must be residents of Indiana, and their parents or guardians must have a service need, including working, going to school or attending job training. The families must earn less than 127 percent of the federal poverty level.
"But I would encourage all families who have a 4-year-old in Johnson County to apply. That 127 percent poverty rate can fluctuate, depending on how many children you have. There are a lot of factors that this On My Way Pre-K takes into account, and there’s no cost to apply," Underwood said.
Families who qualify then can choose a pre-K program in their community. In order to be part of On My Way Pre-K, a school needs to be a Level 3 or 4 in the state’s Paths to Quality system. The statewide system helps parents find the highest quality care, with requirements including planned curriculum to guide child development and school readiness, and in some cases, national accreditation.
In Johnson County, 21 child care providers are considered to be high-quality, according to the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee.
One of those is the Early Learning Community, which provides services to children ages 3 to 5. The preschool is based out of a pair of Greenwood Community schools, Northeast and Westwood elementaries.
As they’ve honed the techniques to ensure children are ready for kindergarten, it has only emphasized the importance of a program such as On My Way Pre-K.
"What that means is that children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to high-quality kindergarten can now come to early childhood programs at no cost at all," Underwood said.
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