The Busy Bees prekindergarten program, which appeared to be in jeopardy just a month ago, will continue next school year, guaranteeing the limited availability of what officials insist is a vital public service for at least a while longer.
Meanwhile, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. officials and its community partners have been mapping out a plan to continue funding the program with an eye toward eventually asking taxpayers to pick up at least some of the cost.
But they’re treading carefully so as not to suffer another setback such as the one on Election Day, when voters in the school district rejected a referendum that would have required them to pay more property taxes during the next seven years to expand prekindergarten opportunities.
“Another referendum probably isn’t likely at this point,” Superintendent John Quick said. “There are no elections in 2013, and 2014 is an off year. We need a different way to involve the public.”
The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. first partnered with the Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County a few years ago to make up for a perceived dearth in educational attention paid to 4-year-olds.
Indiana is one of just 10 states in the nation that does not pay for prekindergarten. The school system and its community partners saw that as a problem, prompting the coalition and the Heritage Fund to pay thousands of dollars to help start and sustain the three-year Busy Bees pilot program.
That financial commitment stops at the end of the year. The partners didn’t commit at that time to extending its funding beyond that, because they hoped the public would agree to pay extra property taxes that would have amounted to a total of $1.8 million a year for seven years, allowing Busy Bees to continue and expanding pre-K in general.
Heritage Fund and the Community Education Coalition’s overall goal for preschool education is to give parents with limited financial means choices in determining where to send their 4-year-olds, while at the same time guaranteeing the affordability of preschool education to every county resident.
Scholarships have been made available not only to the public school system, but also to private schools that offer pre-K. It was uncertain whether or to what extent that will continue.
When the referendum failed, the school system and its partners went back to the drawing board, guaranteeing continued funding of Busy Bees to at least some extent next school year.
Quick said one difference probably will be that parents of future Busy Bees students will have to pay more than parents do currently. For now, parents without scholarships pay $80 a week, which does not include lunch or breakfast.
Parents whose children get scholarships with money provided from the community partners pay just $5 a week. That price is all inclusive, because getting a scholarship requires that students qualify for free and reduced meals based upon their families’ financial needs and income levels.
Quick said he expects the school corporation to continue to serve at least 400 4-year-olds. Those 400 students include about 185 in Busy Bees and about 170 in Title 1, which is for students with special academic needs.
The future of Title 1 already was secure, because it is federally funded.
John Burnett, president and chief executive officer of the Community Education Coalition, said one of the coalition’s highest priorities since 2009 has been to find a way to expand the availability of an early education to 4-year-olds.
He pledged the coalition’s financial support for whatever plan the school corporation and its community partners adopt.
“We do have money set aside that we intend to use to support those pre-K kids,” Burnett said. “What we’re good at is figuring out ways to leverage money to help our partners.”
Tracy Souza, president and chief executive officer of the Heritage Fund, could not be reached for comment about the Heritage Fund’s future financial commitment. And Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer for Cummins Inc., could not be reached about Cummins’ commitment.
The engine maker’s commitment to early education to this point has come by way of direct and indirect donations to the Community Education Coalition.
Teresa Heiny, director of elementary education for the local school system, said far too much evidence exists to support early education for the school system to turn its back on trying to make those programs available to everyone.
She cited studies that show 85 percent of a person’s brain growth is complete by age 5, showing a narrow window of opportunity during a child’s most formative years.
Cathy King, director of Busy Bees, said she was thrilled with Quick’s announcement that Busy Bees will continue next school year, although she never doubted that it would.
She said she has seen young people flourish under the program, which is offered at the Richard L. Johnson Early Education Center at 12th and Sycamore streets, Taylorsville Elementary School at 9711 Walnut St. and at Clifty Creek Elementary School at 4625 E. County Road 50N.
One-hundred percent of English-speaking students at Busy Bees in 2011 passed the kindergarten readiness assessment test in May, she said. In the same time frame, only about 70 percent of English-speaking students passed the readiness assessment test across the rest of the school corporation.
“It’s so exciting for Columbus as a community to get back Busy Bees for another year, and it’s exciting for 4-year-olds,” King said.