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Overcoming barriers to Indiana’s Pre-K program

April 16, 2018
Joseph Dits
South Bend Tribune

Indiana’s pre-kindergarten program rolls out in full force in the fall, and local organizers are trying to fill the slots now — limited as they are — with families who face the same pinch as Alexandria Warren.

The single mom liked the Elkhart preschool that her daughter, Zariah, was attending. She said the girl, now 4, “loves to learn.” It was affordable for the first year, $12 per week, but the sliding scale fee shot up to $140 per week when Warren’s income grew, thanks to a factory job.

Warren pulled Zariah out of preschool and used family as babysitters. That’s why she has applied for both the state pre-K program as well as the federal Head Start preschool program.

“It does give you options,” Anna Carter tells her Thursday at Elkhart’s Tolson Center, as Warren files a Head Start application.

Carter is project manager for the state pre-K program in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall and Kosciusko counties, and she’s coming to Head Start enrollment events so that if a needy family doesn’t qualify for one program, perhaps the other one can help. Head Start regularly has a long waiting list after it fills its 1,020 slots for kids in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.

“We don’t want any child not having that quality care,” she said.

On My Way Pre-K, as it’s called, is coming to 20 counties across Indiana, up from a five-county pilot program, thanks to a $22 million expansion that the state legislature passed last year. Support comes from the state, feds and private dollars, including the United Way in the local four counties.

Families choose from a list of preschools that are accredited or that at least reach Level 3 in the state’s Paths to Quality rating, where Level 4 is the highest. The program covers the cost of tuition up to the market rate for each individual county, plus 10 percent. Parents pay anything beyond that, Carter said.

It started with a partial launch in January, which managed to enroll 48 kids in St. Joseph County. That was modest, partly because it was already halfway through the school year, said Emily Rupchock, coordinator of the local Ready to Grow St. Joe early childhood coalition.

Full enrollment for the fall began March 1 with a goal of enrolling about 3,700 kids — 200 of them in St. Joseph County. So far, Carter said, it has taken 107 applications in the county, but only 83 of them are eligible.

Parents had faced hurdles in the first semester because of several restrictions, Rupchock said. For example, parents need to be working or in school, thanks to the requirements of a federal source of funding: the Child Care and Development Fund.