By Becca Bornhorst
A 6-year-old in the Indianapolis Public School district began kindergarten this year at James A. Garfield School without basic knowledge of numbers or colors. His mother, who chose to stay anonymous, said she was unable to teach her son what most children know before entering kindergarten.
“I want what’s best for him,” she said. “He’s my baby and he’s already behind the other kids. I wish I could give him more but I have to work two jobs to keep us afloat.”
Children enrolled in IPS are not required to attend class until the age of 7 due to Indiana’s compulsory attendence age. When some children begin school they lack exposure to reading or the simplest math, and some also lack the needed social skills to succeed in a classroom with 20 or more other youngsters. When students reach third grade they are expected to be on grade level, which much of the Indianapolis community looks at as a path to failure.
IPS, Indiana’s largest public school system, will begin to provide preschool for the first time in the 2013-2014 school year, in order to help the city’s youngest children succeed in school.
“This will change the kind of students and the kind of education that the kids will receive in the district,” Eugene White, IPS superintendent said. “It’s a foundational step that’s been missing and you can’t build a house if you don’t have a foundation.”
Indiana is one of 11 states that does not provide preschool education. The other 10 states are Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois, Indiana’s neighboring states, each provide early childhood education, according to the National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research.
“Statistics and data make it very clear that preschool education is without a doubt important for a child’s development, both academically and socially,” Suellen Reed, Indiana’s longest serving superintendent of public instruction, said. “When children can’t begin school until the age of 6 or 7 they automatically fall behind and it can cause a domino effect if you aren’t careful.”
Some Indiana children attend private preschool through churches or community centers, and others through the state’s Head Start program. IPS’ preschool initiative will benefit about 1,300 4-year-olds, only one-third of 4-year-old children in the district, said John Althardt, IPS spokesman.
It will cost parents $20 per week to send their children to preschool, totaling to $740 for one academic year. This is unaffordable for some families.
Eugene White said if the amount were unaffordable, parents could pay it off through volunteering and service.
“Most people are familiar with preschool being an additional fee,” Sheila Akinleye, an IPS parent and teacher at Arsenal Technical High School said. “I think that would be a better option than taxing the community.”
The “What’s Possible Indy?” community wide survey showed that 79 percent of Indianapolis residents believe the state should fund pre-K education.
Tony Bennett, Indiana’s current state superintendent, said that in order for the state to pay for preschool or kindergarten as they do first grade, there will have to be a legislative decision to change the compulsory attendance age.
“I personally believe strongly that our most disadvantaged students need preschool,” Bennett said. “But I would tell you that most of the conversations I’ve had with legislators are around the fact that the decision of a child’s education prior to age 7 should be determined solely by the parents.”
Bennett said he does not see the legislature changing the compulsory attendance age anytime in the near future.
“Going forward, I think it’s more of an education policy discussion as opposed to a fiscal policy discussion,” he said.
In IPS’ first phase there will be two stand-alone preschool centers, one at Christian Park Elementary School and the other at George W Carver School. The rest of the pre-K classrooms will be inside of existing IPS elementary buildings.
Eugene White said that whether the state helps fund preschool or not, it will not change his long-term vision.
“We’ve known for a very long time that preschool is necessary and vital to have,” White said. “We just can’t wait any longer for people to do this for us. We have to find a way to get it done.”
Since IPS began providing full-day kindergarten in 2008, the district has brought 75 percent of its first graders to grade level, compared to 65 percent before full-day kindergarten was an option.
“We believe if we have a preschool program that we can get at least 90 percent or more ready for first grade on time,” White said. “It’s just essential that we do it.”
White said funding would have to be reduced from some of the district’s current programs in order to drive money into preschool.
Akinleye, a parent and teacher in the district, said she believes IPS has enough money to pay for preschool, though she is concerned where the dollars will come from.
“They have to be careful,” Akinleye said. “They have so many students already in critical need of a lot of support academically, that they don’t want to throw all of their resources into preschool.”
Newly-elected IPS board member Gayle Cosby said that providing quality early childhood education is key to advancing the district in the right direction.
“I feel like it’s a very important way for us to level the playing field,” Cosby said. “Any research you read will point to some significant gaps in terms of access to quality pre-K programs when it comes to race and socio-economic status, so it is very important for us to get that implemented in IPS.”
Jason Kloth, the city’s deputy mayor of education, said he is encouraged by the local drive for early childhood education.
“This is IPS’ direct response to what the community wants,” Kloth said. “And I think it is a major step forward.”
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