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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017 1:00 am

On their way

Good news, bad news on new round of pre-K expansion

For Indiana preschoolers, early learning has taken a small step forward, as well as a stumbling step back. Expansion of the On My Way Pre-K program by the Indiana General Assembly will bring new learning opportunities for children in DeKalb, Kosciusko and 13 other counties. Much less promising, however, is the addition of an online preschool program – a poor substitute for quality early-childhood instruction.

First, the good news: The On My Way Pre-K program adds 15 counties to the original five in the 2015 pilot program with a $22 million appropriation for preschool – a $10 million increase. It's a long way from serving the estimated 27,000 children from low-income families who need preschool, but it's a move in the right direction.

DeKalb County has been gearing up for the opportunity for some time. Amanda Davis, executive director of United Way of DeKalb County, said her organization is working with Learning Link DeKalb County, Early Childhood Alliance and PNC Bank to raise the required funding match. 

“We have some dollars secured,” she said Tuesday. “There are funds from United Way and the Community Foundation already committed, and there are three organizations from which we have secured funding.”

Learning Link, an initiative of the DeKalb County Foundation, has long targeted early learning as part of its overall mission of promoting continuous learning in the community. Its 21-member Early Childhood Team includes representatives from Ivy Tech Northeast, DeKalb Central and Garrett-Keyser-Butler schools, Bowen Center and several early-learning centers.

Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration, which oversees the On My Way Pre-K program, has yet to determine how many spaces will be available in each county. Only preschool programs at the two highest levels of the Pathways to Quality state ranking system are eligible to participate. One change in the legislation adds new school, work and job-search requirements for families, likely making it harder for the families who most need it to participate.

Davis said the new rules will make it difficult for some. A young mother caring full time for a new baby, for example, won't be able to send her 4-year-old to preschool. 

Another rules change is positive, however. The county-level match required for On My Way Pre-K is reduced from 10 percent to 5 percent for families below 127 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

The biggest misstep for early learning is the addition of $2 million for a virtual preschool program. The program calls for brief lessons, delivered on tablet computers, to be made available to children in 10 counties, including Wells County. 

The idea comes from Utah, which first used the UPSTART software. Utah, like Indiana, trails most of the nation in preschool education.

Unlike Indiana, Utah is largely rural, so it doesn't have the population centers required to offer early learning opportunities. Its online preschool program served about 10,000 students last year, at a cost of $8.2 million.

“I think it's wrong. I don't think the online option is good for Wells County,”Pamela Beckford, executive director of United Way of Wells County, told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly. “I am hoping the money could be put back into the traditional pre-K model.

“If parents want to be engaged with their children, then they are already engaged. It does nothing for the social development, which is a pretty big problem,” Beckford said.

Indeed, quality early-learning programs overwhelmingly emphasize the social aspects of learning – working with others, listening and fostering a sense of community. You won't find children parked in front of a computer screen in a high-quality preschool program.

Given the reluctance Indiana lawmakers have shown to invest in early learning, it's disappointing to see them put dollars toward a largely unproven approach. But classroom-based, high-quality preschool has a long and effective track record elsewhere, and it's good to see more Indiana children have the opportunity to participate through On My Way Pre-K.