Keegan Berry, a preschool teacher with IU Early Day Learning in Indianapolis, reads aloud to students.
photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Reporter
Keegan Berry, a preschool teacher with IU Early Day Learning in Indianapolis, reads aloud to students. photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Reporter
INDIANAPOLIS — Pulling out tinker toys and encouraging children to play might seem simple, but at IU Health Day Early Learning there’s a deeper philosophy.

The first introduction of the toys enables teachers to evaluate a student’s fine motor skills and access their development. Play then transitions to intentional building and learning structures — all carefully supervised and encouraged by trained staff.

Research shows that daily exposure to such education creates a firm foundation for an academic career and improves chances of success later in life.

But in Indiana, children who get these opportunities are in the minority.

Across the nation, nearly one-third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded early childhood education, more commonly called preschool.

In Indiana, just 2% of children attend state-funded preschool.

Indiana lags behind other states that offer universal pre-kindergarten, including Oklahoma and Vermont, which both enroll roughly three-quarters of their 4-year-olds.

Indiana’s numbers improve when accounting for non-state preschools but more than half of children, 57%, didn’t attend a preschool in 2015, the year before the state introduced its first preschool program.

That program, On My Way Pre-K, allots grants for children to attend preschool, enabling low-income families to afford high-quality care. In the six years since the program was launched, it has been expanded to 71 of Indiana’s 92 counties and has served nearly 14,000 children.

However, that leaves more than 323,000 Hoosier children without state-funded preschool.

Programs like Early Learning Indiana, which operates IU Health Day Early Learning, are left to fill the gaps. And the task has grown more challenging during the pandemic.

Chelsea Ndaiga, the school leader of Day Early Learning in Indianapolis, strives to create a learning environment that feels safe.

The children wear facemasks during both work and play, sometimes reminding one another to cover their noses.

“It’s … the whole picture of keeping everything clean and sanitized, socially distancing as much as possible, constant hand washing and more,” Ndaiga said.

“Our teachers have also become experts in extensive hand-washing procedures, putting toys that get into kids’ mouths into ‘yuck buckets’ to be cleaned. … It is not easy, but (it’s) a necessity in these times.”

‘FOUNDATIONAL TO SUCCESS’

In any environment — regardless of whether the world is in the throes of a pandemic — research shows that early educational opportunities boost individual progress.

“We know that access to high-quality early learning services are really foundational to children’s success,” said Maureen Weber, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana.

Ninety percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5 and greatly depends on the child’s environment and caregivers.

Children who attend preschool carry those benefits throughout their lives, beyond the primary purpose of preparing for kindergarten and learning socialization skills.

Preschool decreases a child’s chances of incarceration later in life, leads to fewer school suspensions and facilitates a child’s path to higher levels of education and employment. Children perform better on grade school tests, stay in school longer, experience lower rates of depression, have better physical health and ultimately have higher individual/household earnings.

President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion economic package intends to expand access to preschools to all 3- and 4-year-olds, especially in states without a universal preschool program. The bill remains mired in political uncertainty but could transform how children access early education.

Preschool can be even more important for impoverished children, many of whom enter school with lower academic skill levels than their peers. Having a preschool education can make the biggest difference for these children, who typically start school 18 months behind more affluent children.

Early childhood poverty stays with a person throughout their life, negatively impacting their overall community through increased healthcare costs and social services, decreased tax revenues and diminished local workforce effectiveness.

Nicole Norvell, director of the Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning in Indiana, emphasized the importance of early-childhood education for young Hoosiers — though the state doesn’t have a universal preschool program.

“Early learning isn’t just about mom and dad being able to go to work, but it’s really about helping prepare that kid to be as successful as they can,” Norvell said. “The more we learn about brain science, the more we understand that it’s not just babysitting. There’s a lot that happens in that environment.”

‘CLOSING THE GAP’

Analyzing the availability of preschool across Indiana is challenging, prompting advocacy group Early Learning Indiana to commission a “Closing the Gap” study that crafted its own methodology for quantifying the state’s shortage of preschools.

The study aimed not just to analyze the quantity and quality of preschools but also study whether parents living in any given census tract had access to affordable care and a choice in types of care.

Looking at its four identified components for centers — capacity, quality, affordability and choice — the group’s Early Learning Access Index concluded that “nearly every community in the state has opportunities to improve.”

The state score, using the four factors listed above, was 60.6, with anything less than 60 considered inadequate, according to the study.

None of Indiana’s counties scored 80 or above, considered adequate; 14% of counties had moderate access to early learning opportunities, and the remaining 86% of counties had inadequate access.

“Counties recognized as urban or suburban are more likely to have moderate access; rural counties are more likely to have inadequate access,” the study found.

It determined that Indiana had the overall capacity to serve 180,452 of the estimated 323,109 children who need care or education.

The study assumes that two-thirds of all children under the age of six, or 323,109 children, will need care. An estimated 478,754 children under the age of 6 live in Indiana.

“Even if we assume a conservative estimate of two-thirds of children who may need care actually will need care, we still see a shortage in statewide capacity,” the study said.

HIGH-QUALITY CARE SCARCE

Just 17% of Indiana’s centers meet the Indiana Family and Social Services Administrat ion’s def inition of “high-quality” care.

Availability doesn’t mean centers are affordable, the study warns, noting that Marion County and Northern Lake County have lower median incomes than most of the state but have some of the highest child care costs.

And with child care vouchers limited to those earning 127% or less of the poverty level, the study warns that twice as many Hoosiers belong to “ALICE” families — those that are asset limited, income constrained and employed. Nearly a quarter of Indiana families qualify as ALICE families living on the margins of poverty.

A separate federal analysis determined that even if children qualify for the care subsidy, the vast majority do not access it. Less than 20% of children eligible for the largest such subsidy, the Child Care and Development Fund, actually receive it.

In terms of choices available for parents, Early Learning Indiana found that 71% of facilities were licensed to serve toddlers and infants, with 14 counties reporting zero high-quality programs for infant and toddler care.

Six counties had no child care centers and two others had no home-based child care providers. An additional eight counties had no child care options during nontraditional hours — before 6 a.m., after 7 p.m., overnight and weekends.

Weber, the Early Learning Indiana CEO, explained that Hoosiers could use an interactive map to find child care availability down to their zip code.

The organization is also working to introduce a tool, the Early Learning Marketplace, that would enable child care and preschool providers to report their vacant spots and parents to search available openings in real time.

“It’s an incredibly challenging industry to be in. That was true before the pandemic, and that is exacerbated during the pandemic,” Weber said.

“I think it really starts with an understanding that there truly is an insufficient supply of sheer seats of early-learning capacity.”

INDIANA FALLS BEHIND

The National Institute for Early Education Research, part of Rutgers University, released a 2020 report on The State of Preschool, determining that the average state funding per child for early education was $5,499 in 2019-2020.

But Indiana is one of six states that the institute doesn’t consider at all because of the states’ work requirements for caretakers. By focusing on work requirements, Indiana emphasizes the child care aspect for parents rather than the education component for children, the national institute argues.

The institute did recognize the impact of Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K program helping low-income families afford high-quality care. Children are eligible if they turn 4 years old by Aug. 1 and will start kindergarten the following year.

To qualify, families must make less than 127% of the federal poverty level and be working, going to school, attending job training or searching for employment. Limited subsidies are available for qualifying families earning as much as 185% of the federal poverty level.

The pandemic interrupted a longitudinal study by Purdue University of the first cohort of children who used the On My Way Pre-K program. Assessments will be fully analyzed later this year.

So far, according to an October 2020 report, researchers found that the program benefited children most in terms of literacy and general school readiness.

Children who have passed through the On My Way Pre-K program have fewer unexcused absences and fewer discipline records in elementary school. Additionally, parents reported their own benefits in several areas, including selfsufficiency or ability to get a job, starting school or other training and increasing school or work hours.

“Along with the great strides we’ve seen in the children’s progress through the prekindergarten year, the impact has been felt by both the families and the communities where these children attend,” the report said.

As of the fall of 2020, there were 969 high-quality On My Way Pre-K programs in 71 Indiana counties.

INADVERTENT IMPACT

If the Washington, D.C., bill survives, universal preschool seems likely to be a main component of the trillion-dollar economic package. That money would go to states, but the concept could have drawbacks.

Norvell points out that many public schools offer pre-K to 4-year-olds, which parents can opt into, but children leaving private child care centers and attending free preschool could threaten the delicate balance.

“(We) are trying to be very cognizant about what happens when the 4-year-olds … go only to their public school,” explained the director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.

“(Any) child care operator is going to tell you that they lose money on infants and toddlers. The reason is because you have to have so many staff, it’s just an expensive way to do care. But the way they make that up is in older classrooms.”

With state-funded preschool available only in parts of Indiana, most Hoosier parents continue paying for private care and schooling. But universal free public preschool would shift that discussion.

“If the older kids all leave and go to your public school, (child care operators are) only left with infants and toddlers, which is not a sustainable business plan. Families can’t pay what it would actually cost just to support them,” Norvell said.

Infants and younger children require more hands-on, intensive care, as dictated by state law. A lower children-to- teacher ratio means fewer families shoulder the cost of that teacher’s salary, especially among the poorest families that already struggle to pay for child care.

One provider in Speedway told Norvell the facility closed precisely because families left to send their children to public preschool. That left the community with one less provider even as Indiana grapples with a shortage of child care options.

“It is absolutely doable to have pre-K programs in public schools,” Norvell said. “We just always want to be careful about what that is doing to the infant and toddler system, and is that making that (care) more affordable and less accessible for families.”

Becky Albano-Miller, co-owner of Pixie Playhouse in Lebanon, said she’d seen her enrollment suffer with the expansion of public preschool “Parents think of us as babysitters, but we’re preschool teachers, too,” she said. “Parents think of free pre-K as free babysitting. In the long run, they’ll pay dearly.”
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