If state lawmakers decide to fund expanded prekindergarten offerings statewide in the upcoming legislative session, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. intends to be prepared.

The school corporation unveiled its plans Monday to certify BCSC schools with prekindergarten programs as Paths to Quality locations.

Paths to Quality is a national program being used in Indiana as a rating system for the quality of child care, preschool and school-age programs. The program gives families an easily understandable rating system and helps professionals improve their work through resources and professional development opportunities.

The system is meant to provide a useful tool to help parents determine whether a provider is deemed to be high quality, said Shane Yates, director of prekindergarten for BCSC.

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The district is also helping teachers plan lessons that are student-driven and guided around students’ learning needs, he said.

Schools seeking to be certified in Paths to Quality must submit an application to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and meet eligibility standards.

Standards are established by the state, with programs visited annually to ensure the level of care and education being provided. Schools are rated on a scale of 1 to 4, and the information is placed on a searchable database on childcareindiana.org.

Level 1 programs meet all health and safety standards.

Level 2 programs offer environments that support children’s growth, development and learning.

Level 3 programs have planned curriculums to guide child development and prepare children for kindergarten.

Level 4 represents national accreditation.

BCSC currently provides full-day prekindergarten to about 330 students in 19 classrooms among nine schools.

About one-third of families are paying full price, while the remainder are receiving scholarships.

The Busy Bees Academy at the R.L. Johnson Early Education Center — which holds a Level 3 rating — offers a full-day prekindergarten program at $150 a week, Monday through Friday, following the BCSC calendar.

BCSC wants all of its elementary schools — with the exception of Schmitt, Lincoln and Clifty Creek — to be designated as Paths to Quality Schools next year, said Chad Phillips, director of title services with BCSC. Prekindergarten students at Schmitt and Clifty Creek attend Busy Bees. Lincoln’s prekindergarten is held at CSA Fodrea.

The first BCSC school outside of Busy Bees Academy to seek the Paths to Quality designation will be Taylorsville Elementary School, Phillips said.

There are 24 Bartholomew County programs rated between 1 and 4. Five private programs are already rated at Level 4 in Bartholomew County: Cummins Child Development Center, Deb’s Daycare, Lil’ Stars Daycare II, Nana’s Lil’ Angels and Kinder Care Learning Center.

Seeking state support

In 2014, after Indiana learned it was one of just 10 states with no state funding dedicated to prekindergarten, Gov. Mike Pence and the state legislature put together a small-scale pilot program to provide low-income 4-year-olds in five counties with scholarships worth $2,500 to $6,800 per student.That program was set to provide about 1,500 half- or full-day vouchers for children to attend a qualified program, based on the state’s 4-level Paths to Quality rating scale.

Bartholomew County competed to be one of the five counties to be in the pilot, but lost out to Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties after making it to the 18 finalists stage.

After losing that bid for funding, the school district sought an additional 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation in a school referendum during the fall of 2014, which would have generated 1.8 million annually to cover full-time prekindergarten for an estimated 450 students a year in Columbus who demonstrated financial need.

After extensive campaigning, the ballot question failed 6,817 to 8,064, or 46 percent to 54 percent in November 2014, with opponents arguing that the school corporation was seeking taxpayer money for publicly funded daycare.

The percentage is identical to the margin of loss in the November 2012 general election when the district pushed a nearly identical referendum.

Since then, the school corporation has used grant money and other funding to make up the shortfall to fund prekindergarten at the nine schools, Phillips said.

Phillips said he hopes the state pilot program is expanded to all counties. If that doesn’t happen, it will leave the district in a difficult position, he said.

The district has more than 200 students attending pre-K who do not pay for it, Phillips said.

That is another reason why he thinks it is important to ensure that BCSC schools are Paths to Quality ready, he said.

Benefits of prekindergarten

Data compiled by the district shows students who attend prekindergarten at BCSC will outperform those who do not, adding that the gap grows as students get older, Phillips said.The ability to meet achievement benchmarks at a higher rate is particularly noticeable among students who receive lunch assistance or those who are in special education programs, he said.

The percentage of students receiving free lunch who attended BCSC prekindergarten and attained the benchmarks outperformed those who didn’t attend BCSC prekindergarten in reading assessments in kindergarten, first and second grades, Phillips said.

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said he is in favor of prekindergarten expansion, but said kindergarten needs to be fully funded first.

Smith said state revenue forecasts for the 2017 fiscal year are projected to be down $300 million, mostly attributed to decreases in sales-tax receipts. However, Smith said he believes state-funded prekindergarten expansion is likely since it has been cited as a priority by Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb.

“We just need to be able to find the money to do it,” Smith said. “The more successful the pilot programs are, the more likely we will find a way to pay for pre-K.”

Smith said the amount of money the state would have to appropriate to fund prekindergarten statewide is estimated to be between $300 million and $800 million. That estimate is based on $5,088 in foundation grant money to fund each K-12 student in the state, Smith said.

The state’s school funding formula ties 52 percent of the state’s budget to K-12 education, he said.

State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said he supports an expansion of prekindergarten based on the needs of school corporations rather than a statewide rollout.

“I’d like to make sure we go forward with something that is a best fit for the school corporations and the communities in which they operate,” Walker said.

Walker also said he wants to get more information on how effective prekindergarten is and whether it is working in the five counties that received pilot-program state funding.

The Indiana General Assembly is scheduled to begin its 2017 legislative session Jan. 3.

Pre-kindergarten in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

330: students enrolled in prekindergarten.

9: Number of locations where prekindergarten is offered.

19: Classroom offering full-day, full-week prekindergarten.

12: The number prekindergarden students per teacher, or 1:12 ratio.

23: Number of teachers assigned to prekindergarten

Source: Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

On the Web

To find Paths to Quality-rated programs throughout the state broken down by city or county, visit childcareindiana.org.

Register for prekindergarten

Registration for Busy Bees Academy and all prekindergarten programs in the 2017-18 Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. will begin Jan. 9, the first day of the second semester of this school year. Starting on that date, applications will be available online at bcsc.k12.in.us

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com