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Chamber members get early-education primer

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Cutting chicken with a plastic spoon is difficult.

Several Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce members learned that when they arrived at a luncheon last week to find a note at their table instead of metal flatware wrapped in a napkin.

In childish handwriting, it read: “You did not have the benefit of a pre-K experience, therefore you did not arrive at kindergarten (lunch) with the tools you need to succeed.”

The event was a primer for about 70 members of the business community on the push for public prekindergarten.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. is seeking $1.8 million annually in taxpayer money to pay for full-time prekindergarten for the estimated 450 students a year whose families cannot afford it.

The referendum to appear on the November ballot — which failed in the 2012 general election by about

1,700 votes, or 46 percent supporting it — will ask for an increase of 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation on city property taxes. It would be in place for seven years.

The tax rate currently is 87 cents per $100 assessed valuation. With the increase, a taxpayer with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay an additional $16 a year if the taxpayer took standard deductions and exemptions.

A taxpayer with a house assessed at $150,000 would pay about $32 more per year.

If taxpayers approve the measure, it would become effective for the 2015-16 school year.

At the end of seven years, the increase would be taken off the tax rate.

With much at stake with the referendum, the school district and the Community Education Coalition gave a joint presentation on the benefits of prekindergarten and how it would be implemented in Columbus with public dollars.

“We’re probably

preaching to the choir here,” Superintendent John Quick acknowledged.

Cindy Frey, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said that is probably true since most members recognize the need to improve Columbus’ educational system.

“Developing tomorrow’s workforce is very important business,” she said.

Argument for pre-K

The district and the Community Education Coalition predict every $1 spent on a prekindergartner will save $7 by the time that person reaches age 27.

The number is based on the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. Using that forecasting method would turn a $1.8 million annual investment into $12.89 million in tax dollars saved after about 20 years.

The report shows savings come from higher earnings, reduced crime and reduced need for special education and welfare assistance.

Teresa Heiny, the school district’s director of elementary education, said there already is evidence that local prekindergarten efforts are working.

More than a quarter of all students entering kindergarten in BCSC last fall were not prepared, but there is a silver lining in the data. Students coming from a BCSC prekindergarten program were

20 percent more likely to meet kindergarten expectations.

Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition, said there is evidence-based data that show students are 30 percent more likely to graduate if they started school in prekindergarten.

“Pre-K makes dollars and sense,” Heiny said.

School district sounding board

Quick said schools and chambers in some communities butt heads, but that is not the case in Columbus.

“Our chamber is a partner and a supporter, and that’s good for our community,” Quick said. “We find them a great sounding board.”

So he asked those attending the luncheon for feedback, encouraging members of the audience to ask questions and providing exit surveys at each table.

“They want strategy and details,” Quick said. “They understand the passion, and they understand the moral obligation, but they want to know the business case.”

Bob Abrams, a chamber member who also serves on the school board, asked about a federal study that questioned the long-term impact of Head Start, the federally funded early childhood education program.

It found that while participation helped children learn and develop while enrolled, advantages had mostly vanished by the end of third grade.

Quick said if those children had not had the Head Start intervention, they would have been behind from the start.

“It’s hard to argue, ‘Well, what if they hadn’t had it?’” he said.

Driving development

An educated and available workforce is the most important aspect a company seeks when considering locating in a community, said Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board. He said focusing on the input, or the 4-year-olds, could strengthen the output, or the workforce.

“Taking information that our educators are giving us, it sounds like prekindergarten is helping to improve the chances of students being successful in school, and that means more qualified workers at the end of the process,” he said.

Columbus-based Cummins Inc. has invested nearly $1 million to make preschool affordable for all Bartholomew County families in an effort to make the community more attractive to potential employees.

About $350,000 went to BCSC to help launch the Busy Bees Academy pilot program, and another $500,000 went to the Community Education Coalition.

Cindy Reed, director of the Cummins Childcare Development Center, said quality prekindergarten is an employee incentive, and it leads to better production at work.

“Parents want good quality care, or else they’re not happy in their workplace,” she said.

Area real estate agents have found families are so concerned with quality care that it will determine whether they relocate to Columbus or decide to live in Greenwood.

Cheryl Stuckwish, an owner and broker with Prudential Indiana Realty in Columbus, said schools are extremely important to families considering moving to the community. She said schools in Columbus are in constant competition with school districts in surrounding areas.

“Many (potential buyers) have done a lot of research on schools,” Stuckwish said. “They will come into the area knowing as much about the school system here as we do.”

Could a high-quality prekindergarten program attract families to live in Columbus?

“In theory, of course,” she said.

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