SEYMOUR -- Rachel Otte can easily see the difference between her two sons' preschool learning programs.
Her oldest, Owen, 8, went through the federally-funded Head Start program for children under 5.
Her youngest, Bryson, 5, has spent two years in pre-kindergarten at the public Seymour-Redding Elementary School, including one year under the state-funded On My Way Pre-K pilot program.
"It's more hands-on at Redding," Otte said. "Bryson's learned so much this year and last. My oldest is saying, 'I didn't even get to do stuff like that'."
On My Way Pre-K, she said, offers a curriculum-driven classroom to prepare children for kindergarten. Before On My Way was initiated, her son's class "was more like a daycare environment."
Two weeks ago, Bryson Otte and other pre-K students at Seymour-Redding received personal graduation certificates from Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.
Jackson County is one of five Hoosier counties, and the only rural locality, named to pilot On My Way Pre-K, which funds full-day classes for low-income families. Currently, 95 are enrolled in Jackson County's 12 facilities that receive On My Way grants; 125 students are expected next school year.
The Indiana General Assembly recently expanded the program to 20 counties and increased funding to $10 million. Enrollment could quadruple from about 2,300 students currently served.
The legislature also changed eligibility requirements for families. If parents aren't holding a job or actively seeking one, their child might not be eligible for the program. That provision, some say, will turn away students who may be in most need of pre-K instruction.
Brownstown Christian Church Early Learning Ministry serves 21 students, including 11 through an On My Way Pre-K grant. Next year, Director Tina Howell expects 13 to enroll through the state program, but six might not qualify because of the new state restrictions.
She points to the academic improvement of one On My Way student whose mother is unemployed. An initial assessment put him in the 30-range of a 115-point test. He is now nearing 80. While that improvement is notable, most of the Brownstown facility's students score over 100 and will head to kindergarten next year, Howell said.
That puts the 11 kids on an even playing field with the children of parents who can afford to pay for pre-K education, she said.
"I'm disheartened because ... parents who don't work and don't plan to work will not be able to teach their children and prepare them for kindergarten under this new law," Howell said.
This year, the On May Way Pre-K program is in Allen, Lake, Marion, Vanderburgh and Jackson counties.
The Family Social Services Administration will determine the 15 counties to be added. The legislature has instructed the FSSA to give preference to rural counties.
Meanwhile, researchers are assessing random samples of children who attended On My Way Pre-K against another sample of same-age children who did not attend, said project director and Purdue University Human Development and Family Studies Professor James Elicker.
Last year, researchers shared preliminary results indicating that children in On My Way Pre-K showed higher learning growth rates than a comparison group, with gains in language ability, early literacy, social skills and general school readiness.