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On My Way Pre-K student Vivian Kimberlin, 5, plays during recess at Zion Lutheran School in Seymour, Indiana. Credit: Mareesa Nicosia for The Hechinger Report

INDIANAPOLIS—When Don Kimberlin’s twins, Vivian and Jouston, were infants, their mother was battling opioid addiction. For most of their young lives, she has been in and out of prison.

A single parent, Kimberlin supports his kids through his contracting business in Seymour, Indiana, a small city in Jackson County. But he has struggled to find affordable, high-quality childcare. During the first frantic year after his twins were born, he even stopped working to stay home with them, burning through his savings.

In early spring 2017, a friend told him that Zion Lutheran School (where regular pre-K tuition is $6,410 per child annually) was accepting 4-year-olds through a state grant program that provides free tuition for low-income parents. The structured program and veteran staff appealed to Kimberlin, as did the faith-based instruction, he said, sitting in the school’s bright lobby one recent morning after dropping his kids at their classroom.

Jouston and Vivian, now 5, are among 2,234 children in 15 counties who enrolled in Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K for 2017-18, the most since the state started the pilot program in 2015.

After nearly a full year of pre-K, Kimberlin is impressed with the progress his kids have made — both are learning how to spell and do simple math and their speech skills have improved. Almost more important, he said, is the huge boost in their self-esteem and independence.

The school’s nurturing environment has been “a blessing” for his children, who have been through too much hardship for their age, Kimberlin said.

“[The teachers] have given my kids the ability to be who they are,” he said.

‘Finally, Indiana had a breakthrough’

For years, Indiana has lagged behind other states in funding high-quality education for its youngest residents. A 2018 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University ranked Indiana second to last in access to state-funded pre-K programs.

Related: New rankings place Mississippi at the top in preschool quality

Until a few years ago, lawmakers pumped most education dollars into K-12 programs that prioritized key school-choice efforts. They increased funding for charter schools and, in 2011, created a school voucher system that has since grown into one of the largest in the country. In 2017-18, 35,458 students used vouchers to attend private or religious schools.

In 2014, On My Way Pre-K represented a major milestone for the Hoosier State: Then-Gov. Mike Pence pushed an unenthusiastic legislature to send public dollars directly to pre-K for the first time, following years of baby steps to improve health and safety in early childhood programs. Pence urged his fellow Republican lawmakers to support the bill by arguing that many poor children never get on track academically: “They arrive in kindergarten and spend too much time trying to catch up, and when that fails, they spend too much of their lives dropping out — out of school, out of work and out of our communities,” he said in testimony before the Senate Education Committee in 2014.

Teacher Robin Clemens helps Niccali McMullen, 5, sound out a word at Martin Luther King Montessori School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Credit: Mareesa Nicosia for The Hechinger Report

It helped that Pence had support from the business community and from Democratic lawmakers, who got on board only after legislators removed a proposal that would have made the pre-K pilot in effect another entry point into the K-12 private school voucher system. (That provision has since been restored via a 2017 amendment to the On My Way law that allows students who have completed their pre-K year and whose families still meet the low-income threshold to receive a tuition voucher to continue attending the same school.)

Related: Why six states still spend nothing on preschool

The program started small, in just five counties, and demand for seats quickly overwhelmed capacity. Of some 5,000 initial applicants in Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, just 30 percent were funded.

“People were exuberant and delighted that, finally, Indiana had a breakthrough,” said John Peirce, an education consultant who helped launch the program in Allen County and now advises state lawmakers on related issues as a volunteer co-chair of the Early Learning Advisory Committee. “We were disappointed at the size and scope of it, but we were just happy that we were finally on the pathway.”

Since then, Indiana has dedicated some $64 million to On My Way, budgeting $10 million annually for the first two years, 2015-16 and 2016-17, under Pence’s leadership. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has been supportive too: In the 2017-19 budget cycle, he approved raising the pre-K budget to $22 million per year and expanding it to 20 counties from the original five.

The average On My Way tuition award is $5,891 annually per child; the law caps the grant at $6,800. (In contrast, the average annual tuition at a high-quality preschool in Indiana is about $8,000.) Counties compete to be selected for the program and are challenged to raise matching funds — a minimum of 5 to 10 percent of state dollars awarded — from local and private sources.

Family members of Child Care Network Preschool students look on with pride during pre-K graduation at Emerson Elementary School in Seymour, Indiana. Credit: Mareesa Nicosia for The Hechinger Report

Preschool providers in the five pilot counties — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh — rushed to meet more stringent health, safety, environment and curriculum standards in order to access the funding. (Tuition reimbursement rates are higher for providers who meet higher standards under Indiana’s child care rating system.) So far, the number of high-quality programs has increased 57 percent, according to Marni Lemons, a spokeswoman for the Family and Social Services Administration, which administers the program.

State officials are moving forward cautiously despite the demonstrated interest. Three years in, just 4 percent of Indiana 4-year-olds who are considered in need of care are enrolled in On My Way Pre-K. In contrast, the national average for publicly funded pre-K enrollment is one-third of all eligible 4-year-olds.

A slow rollout into the new counties began this year. Ten counties opted to start a half-year pilot in January 2018, some with only a couple of students. All 20 counties are expected to participate when school starts in the fall.

While enrollment is expected to grow, the state Family and Social Services Administration declined to share target enrollment figures for next school year. Some earlier reports estimated the program could eventually serve as many as 4,000 students.

“We will monitor our funding very closely and serve as many children as possible in the 20 pilot counties,” Lemons said.

Flagging down parents in Wal-Mart

One of the greatest challenges in fulfilling that enrollment potential appears to be getting parents through the application process. Some pre-K directors and organizers say they’ve spent hours advising parents who desperately want to enroll their child but don’t meet requirements — added in 2017 — that they hold a job, are actively seeking employment, or are in an education program themselves.

Erica Woodward, one of several county-level program managers throughout the state, said she now constantly texts or talks parents through the process, sending screenshots of employment contacts and sign-up information for English as a Second Language classes.

“These parents want to work but they can’t because they don’t have childcare or can’t afford it,” she said.

Related: New bill would significantly expand state preschool in California

Another struggle for some families, especially in Indiana’s rural counties, is that transportation is not covered by the grant. Under the law, On My Way students are required to attend at least 85 percent of the days school is in session or risk losing free access to the pre-K program.

Pre-K student Caroline Larsen, 5, focuses on a class worksheet at Zion Lutheran School in Seymour, Indiana. Credit: Mareesa Nicosia for The Hechinger Report

Some educators, aware that a need exists in their impoverished communities, have gone out of their way to recruit children for free pre-K. At Child Care Network Preschool in Seymour, longtime teaching assistant Iveth Vasquez has made it her mission to flag down parents and even pregnant women in the local Wal-Mart to tell them about the pre-K grants.

“I give them my phone number and tell them to call me when their kid turns 4,” she said. Then she writes the child’s name and birthday in a little notebook she carries, so she knows when to follow up.

Vasquez is the only educator at Child Care Network Preschool who is bilingual in Spanish and English and she easily connects with non-English-speaking  parents who might feel too intimidated to explore their options for schools and child care.

Signs of success

Despite the difficulty expanding the program, preliminary data suggests that once kids are in the classrooms, the program is effective. Sara Schmitt, an assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is leading a multi-year study to evaluate the impact of On My Way Pre-K. The study compares the growth of a randomly selected group of On My Way children with that of children who attend other, lower-rated preschools — schools On My Way children might have attended if they hadn’t received the grant, if they went to school at all.

Related: Universal preschool is most cost-effective, study finds

Members of the 2018 pre-K class at Child Care Network Preschool celebrate the end of the school year in Seymour, Indiana. Credit: Mareesa Nicosia for The Hechinger Report

“Our data are showing that there seems to be promise when children are participating in this program relative to other available programs in terms of their language, literacy and broad school-readiness skills,” Schmitt said.

Three years of work by Schmitt and her 16-person research team culminated in a report submitted to state officials on June; the findings are expected to be publicly available in October. When lawmakers reconvene in early 2019, it’s likely that the Purdue research will factor considerably into their decisions about future pre-K funding.

Greta McKinney, director of the Martin Luther King Montessori School in Fort Wayne, witnesses the positive impact of those state dollars in her classrooms every day.

“We are working with children who have the least,” she said, adding that preschools and daycares are often unprepared to respond to the emotional baggage students carry into the classroom.

The school is the biggest On My Way provider in Allen County, with about half its total pre-K population enrolled through the grant program, McKinney said. In response to families’ needs, the school bolstered social services offerings and trained teachers on how to intervene when children — many of whom experience trauma outside of school — exhibit behavior or share sometimes grim stories based on that trauma.

“If our government would just look at the children that we educate today, they are going to lead tomorrow,” McKinney said. “The sooner we give them the appropriate tools to do that, the better off we’ll be, not only as a community, as a city, but as a world.”

This story about free preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Mareesa Nicosia is an independent multimedia journalist based in New York City. Her reporting has been published in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and USA Today. She developed...

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