Published Online: July 19, 2010

Preschool a Missed Step for Many Ind. Children

Indiana's lack of state-funded preschool and its later school starting age for children could be sending a bad message to parents and putting more children at risk of academic failure, experts say.

Only 20 percent of preschool-age children in Indiana attend public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Oklahoma has 87 percent attendance and West Virginia has 73 percent, the institute says.

Experts say Indiana's low rate and its failure to require children to attend school before age 7 prevent students from building a solid educational foundation.

"If you want third-graders reading at the appropriate skill level, you obviously need to get started long before they're in third grade," said Peggy Hinckley, superintendent of Warren Township Schools.

Each Indiana school district offers preschool to some children, but those slots go mainly to those who are eligible for special education and for whom preschool is mandated by federal law. Only seven other states don't pay for public pre-kindergarten programs.

Advocates say thousands of Indiana's most at-risk children are being shut out of preschool because their parents can't afford to pay for them to attend.

"Unfortunately, Indiana does not have a state-funded pre-K program or state investments in Head Start," said Marci Young, director of Pre-K Now, a national preschool advocacy group that rates Indiana as one of the eight worst states for access to preschool, quality of programs and support for early childhood education. "It's one of the few states where leadership has not made the smart investments other states have thought were important."

State officials say they don't have the money for a statewide early childhood program. But school leaders note that the state didn't fund pre-kindergarten when it had a large surplus, either.

"When you don't have money is the best time to plan for when you do have money and set the priorities," said John Ellis, director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

Statewide, 20,000 students are enrolled in district pre-kindergarten programs, and another 14,000 are served by Indiana's Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

Ena Shelley, dean of Butler University's College of Education, said states need to be proactive about getting children started on the right path at an early age — even if it's a tough sell.

"If you're building a house, you have to make sure you spend the time in pouring and laying the good foundation before you build the rest of the structure," she said. "If you don't, you do constant patch and repair, and you've got cracks, and then you wonder why things are not built more solidly.

"If we would only be proactive, we wouldn't be having these conversations about what do we do about these children at third grade who aren't (achieving) at grade level," she said. "We wouldn't be wringing our hands about the dropout rate and the achievement gap."

Ronald Smith, director of the Warren Early Childhood Center in Indianapolis, said learning to read and write happens naturally when children are exposed to learning experiences such as trips to the zoo and when someone reads to them on a regular basis and challenges them to ask questions.

But those who don't get that stimulation can start kindergarten two years behind.

"It's a huge obstacle to overcome," Smith said.

Don Weilhammer, 45, said his 7-year-old daughter, Anneliese, benefited from attending the Warren center for two years.

"It's so much more than the ABCs and 1-2-3," Weilhammer said. "Her testing has shown her to be advanced for her grade, and I give part of the credit to this place."

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