Early Childhood

Text messages, toiletries, and backpacks: Indiana gets creative with pre-K outreach in rural areas

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

In the years since Indiana first launched its need-based prekindergarten grants in 2015, many families have said they were interested — but then never signed up.

Program manager Erica Woodward tried to call to follow up with them. She didn’t hear back.

What she later found out was that many of the parents didn’t pick up phone calls from unknown numbers, thinking they might be creditors.

So this year, she started texting families instead. Many responded to her, and about 15 more of them ended up enrolling in the state’s On My Way Pre-K program.

This is just one of the strategies that the state is using in its critical effort to double the number of students in On My Way Pre-K, which pays for 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend a high-quality pre-K program of their choice for free. After an initial launch three years ago mostly centered around Indiana’s largest cities, the state is spending $22 million to expand the program from about 2,000 to 4,000 children and reach 15 additional counties, many of them rural — which can present a greater challenge to reach families that qualify.

Still, how well this year’s expansion goes will likely set the stage for the future of the five-year pilot program. Advocates and policymakers are carefully tracking the demand for pre-K, the availability of high-quality providers, and the growth of students to see whether the investment pays off.

While the state says it expects to fill the about 4,000 available seats, staff in the new participating counties have needed to get creative about signing up families. While larger cities have seen a crush of families interested in pre-K opportunities, rural counties are working with a pool of far fewer eligible families and providers, who may be unaware the program exists.

“The need for On My Way Pre-K, regardless of whether we hit the target, is there,” said Woodward, program manager for four southern counties.

In rural counties, she said it takes a serious grassroots effort by local community and education organizations to spread the word about On My Way Pre-K. People often think it’s just a new preschool — they may not realize it’s an opportunity for their children to attend high-quality pre-K for free.

Organizers also work to make sure eligible families meet all the requirements of the program. If parents meet the income thresholds but aren’t working or in school, they’re guided to a local community center, community college, or workforce agency.

To entice people to finish the application process, counties are giving away backpacks filled with food or toiletries.

It works with varying results. Already, some counties new to On My Way Pre-K are seeing high interest from families, the state said — potentially more interest than the program can meet.

Pre-K supporters tout the program for giving access to high-quality early childhood education to people who would have otherwise struggled to afford it. It helps parents hold down full-time jobs or go to school. And early reports on the program show it helps children who, at age 4, are already lagging behind their peers.

Even though the state trails behind most of the nation in this area, pre-K is growing slowly and deliberately in order to focus on results and quality during the pilot.

“When the five years are done and we have a full study, we can do an analysis for if we want to do extra funding for the program, and to make sure capacity is out there,” said Dennis Kruse, a Republican who leads the Indiana Senate’s education committee. “We don’t want to have On My Way Pre-K to be watered down by adding too much money too soon, and then it’s not as effective as it was for the first five years.”

The pace frustrates some advocates, who want to see more children benefiting from early learning. While some lawmakers are wary of expanding pre-K because they believe government is stepping into what has traditionally been a family’s role, most lawmakers appear to be on board with On My Way Pre-K, which was spearheaded by Republican governors Mike Pence and Eric Holcomb.

The sticking point would likely come down to money. Expanding pre-K further could be expensive, particularly if the state lifted or loosened the income eligibility rules. Already, the public funding requires a small match from community partners. It’s unknown how pre-K could continue to be funded, though many agree the likely reality would still be a blend of public and private dollars.

Still, three years into the pilot program, one expert notes the state’s investment in pre-K has changed the way many look at early childhood education, particularly in the high-need, low-income communities served by On My Way Pre-K.

“It is changing the nature of preschool from health and safety to high-quality education,” said Susan Adamson, a Butler University assistant professor who focuses on early childhood education.

Consider that before Jackson County became the first rural county to participate in On My Way Pre-K in 2015, it had just two pre-K providers whose quality was recognized by the state for having a curriculum to prepare children for kindergarten. Now, it has 13.

That benefits all students at those providers, not just those enrolled through the state’s program.

Krystal Perry, a single mother working full-time in Columbus, Indiana, started looking for somewhere to sign up her twins for pre-K as soon as they turned 4. She wanted them to be ready for school, and she figured it was better to start early.

“I know they say that pre-K is not a mandatory thing, but they can never learn enough,” Perry, 34, said.

But she worried about the cost, she worried about her children being safe, and she worried about finding a full-time, year-round program.

She found a high-quality, full-day pre-K program that offered scholarships for her twins, and later, she signed up for On My Way Pre-K when it was expanded to her county. She said she hopes that frees up the school’s scholarship dollars for other families.

Her children come home and sing songs, recite days of the week and months in the year, and chatter about colors, shapes, and numbers.

“Being a full-time parent and working full-time, it gets hard and stressful,” Perry said. “Not having to worry about if I’m going to make enough money at work for my kids to be in school, that’s a whole other level of stress relief off my shoulders.”

In Columbus and surrounding Bartholomew County, the state pre-K program offered a chance to build on a longstanding local mission to improve early childhood education, said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

“We want to give every kid an equal shot,” she said. “I think it will increase the number of children that attend pre-K. It will increase the academic outcomes for kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading, and over time, our children will do better. We’ll have more children graduating from high school and going on to gain post-secondary skills.”

But the state program is just one piece of a large issue. While Oren hopes On My Way Pre-K will be successful, she doesn’t expect it to solve all of the county’s needs. Oren said she believes there are still many families in need of affordable high-quality pre-K, and not enough seats at high-quality providers.

“I think it’s always going to be a blended approach in Indiana, and in Bartholomew County, of public-private funding,” Oren said. “But what that exactly looks like, I don’t know.”

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.