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Preschool plays a key role in region

October 25th, 2014

News Coverage:

Preschool plays a key role in region

Posted: Saturday, October 25, 2014 1:05 pm

BY MEGAN GREVE mgreve@h-ponline.com

Officials say preschool is important for more than learning shapes and colors, as it may actually have a vital role in the success of the region in the future.

Five counties in Indiana, including neighboring Allen County, are preparing to roll out the state’s first pre-kindergarten pilot. However, according to an article by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Statehouse Bureau Chief Maureen Hayden, “only about one third of the state’s 2,300 childcare facilities meet guidelines for academic preparedness.”

In addition, about one in four children are not ready for kindergarten, according to information from the Big Goal Collaborative, an effort through the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to increase the number of people with post-secondary degrees and certifications to 60 percent by 2025.

Why preschool matters

“If you have kids through quality early childhood learning programs that are ready to enter kindergarten, that are ready to succeed in school, they have a much better shot of reading at third-grade level by third grade, which is a major indicator for high school graduation,” Ryan Twiss, director of the Big Goal Collaborative, said. “It really all starts there and moves along the continuum.”

The state of Indiana ranks early childhood programs on four levels through its Paths to QUALITY program.

Level 1 sees that the “health and safety needs of children” are met, according to the Paths to QUALITY website. A Level 2 child care program ensures that the “environment supports children’s learning.”

A Level 3 program – the highest available in Huntington County, according to the Family and Social Services Administration’s ChildCare finder website – has planned curriculum that guides a child’s development and school readiness, according to the Paths to QUALITY website. A Level 4 program is nationally accredited.

Alicia Bowers, head teacher at Huntington Head Start, a Level 3 child care facility, said being a Level 3 facility means striving to make sure students are kindergarten ready.

“We’re giving them activities that are developmentally appropriate…by giving them activities that will go along with the kindergarten school readiness skills: counting objects up to 10, science experiments, anything that’s going to further their education and get them prepared,” she said.

Bowers said Huntington Head Start regularly consults with kindergarten teachers to make sure their programs are in line with what students will need to know upon entering that grade.

“(Kindergarten teachers) have reported to us that if a child does not know their colors, basic and complex shapes, can count objects up to 10 and know at least 10 uppercase letters by the time they enter kindergarten they’re already nine weeks behind,” Bowers said.

In fact, high-quality early childhood education “greatly increases the likelihood of a child graduating from high school,” according to information from the Big Goal Collaborative.

Why some children are not prepared

Though “quality preschool,” is important, Twiss said many students don’t have access to it.

“We have a lot of kids who are not in quality early childhood education programs and part of the reason is they may not have access to it, whether it’s a transportation issue, whether it’s a funding issue, and in some cases there are great programs in certain neighborhoods and they’re totally full,” he said.

In Huntington County there are no Level 4 early child care programs and four Level 3 programs: Huntington Head Start, Pathfinder Kids Kampus, The Tot Spot and Brighter Beginnings, according to the FSSA website.

Kids Kampus costs $134 per week for a 3- to 5-year-old child attending more than 25 hours per week, according to its website. However, financial assistance is available.

Huntington Head Start is free for children ages 3 to 5 whose families are at 100 percent or less of the poverty level, Bowers said. The program does take students whose families are above that level, but only after it has accepted all those who qualify at the poverty level first.

Twiss added that increasing the number of Level 3 and 4 child care facilities would decrease the number of students who do not have access to quality preschool, but said there are barriers there are well, saying Level 3 programs must not only meet curriculum needs for the students and education requirements for the teachers but structural requirements, such as being accessible to those with disabilities.

Another barrier is that early childhood educators are “grossly underpaid,” Twiss said. He also said that since most early child care facilities are not connected with school districts there isn’t a system for sharing information and seeing how well children are doing in kindergarten and beyond.

Solutions

Filling some of these gaps are goals of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Twiss said, including having a group focused on the early childhood workforce, a pilot connecting early child care facilities with school districts, helping current Level 3 providers “expand their capacity” and helping Level 2 facilities that are “on the cusp” get what they need to become Level 3 facilities.

“There are a lot of efforts going on,” he said. “A lot of it is really, frankly, preparing our region to move forward when the time comes.”

Twiss said the recent decision by Gov. Mike Pence not to pursue $80 million in federal funding for early childhood education was something the NIRP had to work with.

“The decision not to pursue that federal dollars really underscored for us the need to focus on local and regional solutions to help support it,” he said. “That (money) would have potentially helped accelerate some of the work, but what we really need is that system across our region of information sharing, opportunities for pay increase (and) capacity among providers.”

Twiss added that while the NIRP has many efforts, there are ways local communities could increase opportunities for those needing early childhood education. He underscored funding, saying that many providers just need a little help with their facilities to reach that Level 3 status.

In addition, both Twiss and Bowers emphasized the effect one-on-one interaction with a child could have.

Bowers said it is never too late, or too early, to start working on education skills with children.

“Colors, shapes, counting, writing their names…it’s very important to start as early as you can. … Getting them to understand the book concepts, holding the book the right way, turning the pages left to right and reading from left to right, memorizing books just by reading them over and over is going to help that child in school to be able to sit down and focus on a book and remember what they’re reading,” she said.

Twiss said that, whether a child is in an early childhood education program or not, having a caring adult there for him or her is important.

“The more adults can be positive influences in a child’s life and help them focus on education and help them understand the need and the expectation of moving forward even starting at those early ages – you’re going to go to school, school’s a good thing – helping them with their shapes, colors, numbers, etc.,” Twiss said. “Any positive influence an adult can be in a single child’s life will help them be successful in school and ultimately will help our pursuit of the Big Goal.”