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Behind pre-K, all the way: Cummins support approaches $1 million

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Cummins Inc.’s shadow looms large over a community effort to make preschool affordable for all Bartholomew County families.

In fact, it was the Columbus-based engine maker’s desire to make this community more attractive to potential Cummins employees that got the ball rolling on this fall’s referendum to see if county voters would also support using tax dollars for early education.

Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer, estimated that his company was responsible for pumping nearly $1 million directly or indirectly into the cause of educating 4-year-olds since starting the effort three years ago.

About $350,000 went directly to Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. to launch its three-year Busy Bees Academy preschool pilot program. That created a preschool option for families that could afford it, in addition to disadvantaged families that could not. Scholarships were made available to local families in need of financial assistance.

The rest of Cummins’ funding — about $500,000 — came in indirect contributions that went to the Community Education Coalition to start and support early childhood education in general, said Gerstle, who also is the education coalition’s chairman. The city of Columbus and state of Indiana contributed the money on the company’s behalf in exchange for Cummins not pursuing certain financial incentives to expand its footprint downtown, including a new parking garage.

Cummins will shift dollars that launched Busy Bees to support the education coalition’s efforts to help bring affordable prekindergarten education to private and parochial schools in Bartholomew County. That assumes the public agrees to pick up the public component so the Busy Bees program can continue in the 2013-14 school year.

If the referendum fails Nov. 6, Cummins will re-evaluate how it serves 4-year-olds.

“The last three years (of Busy Bees) were all geared toward proving the need for prekindergarten education so the public would buy into it,” Gerstle said. “We know that it matters.”

A report on the success of Busy Bees showed marked progress in areas that include math, English and social development, helping prepare the students for kindergarten.

A desire for that kind of educational improvement was the reason Cummins got involved in the first place.

Gerstle said he and other company executives wondered why 18 percent of Bartholomew County residents were dropping out of school, even though the local dropout rate was less than the state average.

It initiated several studies and assigned two of its Six Sigma “black belts” to work on the problem and structure a pilot program that would become the Busy Bees.

Six Sigma is a team-based, statistical method of identifying problems, analyzing why they are problems and then forging solutions. Those who reach “black-belt” status in the Six Sigma hierarchy focus primarily on project execution.

“Cummins does a lot of community projects, and this was one of them,” Gerstle said.

The company’s commitment to preschool students can be seen through Cummins’ own child care facility, the Cummins Child Care Development Center, at 650 Pleasant Grove.

Center director Cindy Reed said that although parents pay to send their children there, Cummins Inc. subsidizes those amounts so the facility can have the teaching proper tools, such as puzzles and games.

She said Cummins created the center as an added enticement to recruit qualified individuals to work for the company in the Columbus market, home to its world headquarters and most of the 7,700 Cummins employees based in southern Indiana.

“Parents want good quality care, or else they’re not happy in their workplace,” Reed said. “When parents don’t have to worry about their kids, that leads to better production at work.”

Gerstle said he wants Columbus and the county to become an even greater place to “live, work and prosper” than it is today. He said the secret is providing quality education to produce the next generation of well-paid leaders.

“The lynchpin of that is education,” he said.

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