A state program is helping local low-income families bridge the affordability gap for preschool education in Bartholomew County.

Fifty-four families have applied for 50 openings in the On My Way Pre-K program, which will provide vouchers to pay for preschool classes beginning in January at seven area providers. Because of income and other requirements, not all applicants will meet qualifications, however.

The district has been accepting applications for On My Way Pre-K since Sept. 25 on a first-come, first-served basis. Families that have applied for vouchers through the program are expected to be notified within the next few weeks, said Erica Woodward, On My Way Pre-K project manager for Bartholomew, Harrison, Floyd and Jackson counties.

On My Way Pre-K awards grants to 4-year-olds from low-income families so that they may have access to a high-quality prekindergarten program the year before they begin kindergarten. Families who receive a grant may use it at any approved On My Way Pre-K program.

The funding covers the entire cost of tuition for recipients, said Marni Lemons, spokeswoman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

Forty-eight families who qualified for child care at a reduced rate at Busy Bees Academy and Taylorsville Elementary School have already applied for the On My Way program, said Shane Yates, BCSC prekindergarten director.

Bartholomew County was among 15 counties named in June to receive state funding for the program, designed to expand options for families that would otherwise struggle to pay for prekindergarten on their own.

Separate from the state voucher program, 240 children have been enrolled in prekindergarten this fall at seven locations in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., Yates said. That number is down from the prior year when the Columbus-based district had about 360 students in prekindergarten classes at nine locations, he said.

The drop in students was not a matter of reduced demand, as about 100 families that had hoped to have their children begin prekindergarten in the fall instead found their names on a waiting list.

A reduction in Title I funding and the loss of grant dollars are among financial factors that led BCSC administrators to reduce prekindergarten enrollment capacity by about one-third this fall, they said.

Capacity available

BCSC does have the physical capacity to add more prekindergarten classes, with four additional classrooms available at Busy Bees Academy, as well as two at Taylorsville, Yates said.

“If we can open up new classrooms next year, we will,” Yates said. “Our ultimate goal is to impact as many kids as we can.”

Those who qualify for the On My Way Pre-K program will financially benefit substantially by opting for the state program, Yates said.

Parents whose children qualify for the state’s pre-K program could save $900 for the semester if the students attend Busy Bees Academy or Taylorsville’s program.

Cost savings for income-eligible families during the full 2018-19 school year would be $1,800.

For BCSC families who do not qualify for income-based assistance, the full tuition cost of sending a child to prekindergarten is $5,400, Yates said.

Columbus resident Mercedes Waller, who sends her son Jaylen to prekindergarten classes at Busy Bees and pays a reduced rate, said she applied for the On My Way Pre-K program in early October and is waiting to see if her application gets approved. Waller lives with her mom, Jaylen and his 2-year-old brother Quinton.

“It would most definitely help,” Waller said. “Right now, we’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

Waller said she decided to enroll Jaylen into prekindergarten to give him more opportunities to learn, grow and socialize with other students.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of improvement,” she said. “He remembers more.”

Attending prekindergarten is an important part of a child’s development, said Bridgitt Wetzel, a Busy Bees teacher.

Wetzel said beyond socialization, prekindergarten teaches preschoolers necessary skills as they move into kindergarten, in addition to learning that school is fun.

“Everybody should have the same opportunity,” she said.

Prekindergarten sets the foundation for learning about letters and numbers and helps youngsters academically, socially and emotionally, Yates said.

“Without the experience that is offered with prekindergarten, it can be a struggle for students without those skills,” Yates said. “We know that students that participate in prekindergarten do better on ISTEP.”

Private preschool providers also are looking to serve the needs of more low-income families.

Jill Hammer, executive director of Children Inc., said the facility on McClure Road has 17 children who attend prekindergarten, but has space for 48 students.

Children Inc. receives financial assistance in the form of scholarships through United Way of Bartholomew County allowing families to send their children to prekindergarten. Forty percent of children enrolled at Children Inc. receive state childcare vouchers, while 23 percent receive scholarships, Hammer said.

“I’m hoping that families who can’t get vouchers or other assistance will be able to take advantage of the (state) program,” Hammer said.

Children Inc. receives phone calls daily from families seeking to send their children to prekindergarten, Hammer said.

While this round of applications is for 50 students, On My Way Pre-K will have 100 spaces available in Bartholomew County next fall, Woodward said. Applications for those spaces for the 2018-19 school year will be made available in the spring, Woodward said.

Long-term impact

Of the roughly 1,000 4-year-olds in Bartholomew County, 450 to 500 of them are from low-income homes and qualify for free or reduced lunches in BCSC, said Kathy Oren, executive director with the Community Education Coalition.

Oren hopes to increase participation in the program from 50 to 100 — and then possibly to 500 students over time. She added that Bartholomew County needs funding for 500 4-year-olds every year, but she called On My Way Pre-K a great start.

The program will help to increase kindergarten readiness and reduce the achievement gap for at-risk students, Oren said.

“This is a big win for families, children and the community overall,” Oren said. “In the long run, increasing funding for low-income families to help send their child to a high-quality program of their choice will increase third-grade reading scores, high school graduation rates and help our youth be ready for college, work and life.”

How to submit an application

Paper applications for On My Way Pre-K are being accepted at seven providers in Bartholomew County:

  • Busy Bees Academy, R.L. Johnson Early Education Center, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., 1209 Sycamore St.
  • Children Inc., 715 McClure Road
  • First Presbyterian Preschool, 512 Seventh St.
  • Nana’s Little Angels, 2104 Seventh St.
  • Learn by Heart, 18107 E. County Road 350S, Grammer
  • Deb’s Day Care and Preschool, 5403 W. Quan Wae Drive
  • Taylorsville Elementary School, 9711 Walnut St., Taylorsville

Online applications can also be filed at onmywayprek.org.

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