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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 21, 2017 1:00 am

Pre-K a proven path for early success

Shauna Wagner

In the Indiana legislative session, it's easy to boil issues down to numbers: How much will we spend on new roads? How much should we raise the cigarette tax? How many kids should receive free pre-K?

It's natural for legislators to think in numbers for debates such as these. Yet an issue like pre-K is driven by more than dollars and cents. It has an enormous effect on thousands of Hoosier families, including mine.

As someone who has benefited from Indiana's pre-K program, I urge lawmakers to look beyond the numbers when considering how much to invest in pre-K, and instead think about the children and families their legislation will affect. After all, their decision will determine whether thousands of low-income children can have a strong early start.

I am one of the lucky ones. My son, Elijah, had his name picked in the lottery for the state's On My Way Pre-K scholarship. Unfortunately, there are many parents like me who can't afford the cost of pre-K out of pocket, but still can't access state support. That's because there are not enough scholarships for all these deserving kids.

These parents are left overwhelmed and without support in providing the foundational education they know is so important to their kids.

I know this feeling firsthand.

As a working parent in the restaurant service industry, paying for pre-K was difficult enough when my significant other and I had two combined incomes. But after we separated, I knew affording pre-K as a single mother of two earning less than $15,000 per year would be impossible.

At the time, Elijah was attending the Day Early Learning Lilly Family Center. My youngest son, Chance, was too young for pre-K but was enrolled in a federal child care program.

I began to explore other options and thought about hiring an at-home babysitter to cut costs. But after seeing the amazing results in Elijah's progress at Day Early Learning, I did not want to put him into a lower-quality program. I knew from previous experience how important high-quality learning is.

Not long before, I had enrolled Elijah in a less-expensive, in-home preschool center while I took care of Chance, then a newborn. The flexibility and peace of mind the program provided were wonderful, but the education and attention Elijah received were not.

Without the proper attention and instruction, I saw Elijah stalling in his development. He wasn't being encouraged to explore, socialize or think creatively. So I withdrew him from the program. After this experience, I knew that high-quality pre-K really matters. It means a structured curriculum with a strong educational foundation, and trained teachers who continually engage students.

For this reason, I am grateful to be a recipient of the On My Way Pre-K program. Every day, I see children learning, exploring and making friends.

Because of this, I don't view pre-K as a luxury. Rather, I see it as an essential beginning to my children's education.

And as a single parent, pre-K also enables me to remain employed. My job requires a flexible schedule, and being able to drop  my kids off at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 4 p.m. is a godsend.

I know this is not just true for me but for thousands of Indiana families who rely on state assistance for pre-K. Yet, for every family who's been fortunate enough to receive a scholarship, thousands more have not.

Indiana should act boldly on pre-K and make significant investments in the existing program. The decisions our lawmakers make will affect not just our state's bottom line but the real lives of families across our state.

After all, success starts early for our children. I hope our legislators act with all of them in mind.

Shauna Wagner is an Indianapolis resident.