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Changes coming to pre-K

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Public school officials are trying to make it easier for Bartholomew County parents to send their children to prekindergarten, despite tuition increases they will face starting with the 2013-14 school year.

John Quick, superintendent of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said local voters’ rejection of a proposed tax increase to expand the programs left the school system and its community partners determined to find new ways to strengthen pre-K offerings.

They came up with a plan that scales back the Busy Bees program to make up for a significant reduction in partner funding, while still making the program more accessible in general to parents.

The plan for this fall shaves the Busy Bees school week to four days, raises weekly tuition for full-day instruction to $90 from $80 and possibly cuts the number of scholarships that will be available to children.

Quick said Busy Bees teachers will see their employment scaled back from full time to part time next school year, and they will have less time to teach students as the number of class sessions per week drops by a day, or 20 percent.

However, school officials are introducing a formal half-day option for $45 a week and providing free bus transportation to and from school to fit both half- and full-day schedules.

They hope the changes in the Busy Bees program, which had been operating on a three-year trial basis, will reiterate a continuing message to the public that pre-K education is important for the good of the entire community.

Title 1, which funds pre-K opportunities for students with academic needs, also will get midday bus transportation.

“The lack of transportation has been an obstacle to enrollment,” Quick said. “We think that this and some of the other changes will help tear down those barriers to families.”

The school system also will shuffle locations where it offers the programs.

Columbus Signature Academy Fodrea will become a Busy Bees school for the first time, for example, while Richards Elementary School will add Title 1 pre-K.

Quick said Taylorsville and Clifty Creek elementary schools no longer will offer Busy Bees, but Mount Healthy and Rockcreek elementary schools might if the demand is great enough.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. first partnered with the nonprofit Community Education Coalition and the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County 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 Heritage Fund to dedicate a total of $1.6 million to help start and sustain the three-year Busy Bees pilot program.

The partners didn’t commit to expanding funding beyond the initial three years, hoping 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.

Quick said the partners couldn’t sustain their previous financial commitment, however, after a public referendum failed in the November election.

Instead, the Community Education Coalition committed to $150,000 a year over two years for bus transportation.

Tracy Souza, president and chief executive officer of the Heritage Fund, said the fund is trying to figure out exactly how best to help.

As it did before the referendum failed, the Heritage Fund plans to dedicate $200,000 — partly from its own coffers and partly from the community — to help private schools improve technology to better compete with the public school system, Souza said. About 20 private and parochial institutions offer preschool in Columbus.

Souza said the Heritage Fund also wants to dedicate money to scholarships, so even more families can take advantage of prekindergarten. She did not know yet how much money would be set aside or how many scholarships would be available to families in the community.

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.

“Busy Bees was an incredible model and opportunity for so many people in this community,” Souza said. “Unfortunately, the public didn’t recognize it in the referendum.”

She said the fact that prekindergarten nevertheless will be available to even more families next school year is a testament to the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s dedication to the commitment of giving kids a head start.

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