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Funding biggest roadblock for statewide pre-K

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Bartholomew County educators and proponents of early education programs are cautiously optimistic about Gov. Mike Pence’s desire to fund pre-kindergarten programs in the state’s next two-year budget.

However, they recognize that the political process is slow and education will be competing with other wish-list items for funding. Local advocates acknowledge that the idea of quickly fully funding pre-kindergarten programs statewide isn’t realistic.

But the fact that Pence spoke of the need for pre-kindergarten education during his State of the State speech Tuesday, and other state political leaders have stated the same need, shows that the issue is high on people’s agendas, the early education proponents said.

The chairman of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition said that a slow, deliberate political process, and pilot programs to measure results, really aren’t necessary.


Model program

Pence already shared the need and a model that could be replicated when the governor mentioned the success of the public Busy Bees Academy in Columbus during his address, said Mark Gerstle, vice president of community affairs for Cummins Inc.

The Columbus-based engine and power generation systems maker is one of the community’s education partners, and it supports the Busy Bees program to help families prepare their children for kindergarten.

Busy Bees began three years ago when the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. partnered with the Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County to make up for a perceived dearth in educational attention paid to 4-year-olds.

“If (state government) were a business, we would invest right now, 100 percent, and we would not pilot anything. We already know every answer to every question, and we would do it exactly like Busy Bees,” Gerstle said.

House Bill 1004, which has been referred to the Committee on Education, would create a pre-kindergarten pilot program in a maximum of five counties for the 2013-14 school year.

Workforce needs

Employers statewide have expressed the need for employees who have more advanced skills, which require higher levels of education, Gerstle said. However, he said the state is failing to produce those types of employees because it lags in early education, the important foundational stage. Additionally, he called the 15 percent statewide high school dropout rate abysmal.

Columbus addressed the pre-kindergarten education issue locally when it launched the Busy Bees Academy, Gerstle said. Its curriculum is based on national benchmarks, he added.

“(Busy Bees) exceeded all expectations,” Gerstle said. “(Nearly) all children who entered kindergarten are actually reading at the kindergarten level.”

According to the 2011-12 Busy Bees Annual Report, 90.1 percent of Busy Bees students who took the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment on May 1 received a passing score. The kindergarten entrance exam assesses students on their ability to read and write their names, identify letters in the alphabet, shapes and colors, count and recognize numerals and hear the differences in sounds and words.

Cathne Holliday, director of pre-K programming for BCSC, said the fact that Pence mentioned Busy Bees in his address is proof that the community’s efforts are working.

Skill gains

The academy has been successful in getting students’ educational development on par with their chronological ages, said John Burnett, president and CEO of the Community Education Coalition.

During the 2011-12 school year, Busy Bees students showed an average “educational age” gain of 26 months in eight months of school for all areas of academic focus, according to the annual report. Math, English and language arts skills, social emotional skills, geometry and measurement, personal care and physical skills are measured.

Gerstle said that if Cummins has to do any remedial work to any part that enters any of its factories, that is considered a waste of money. He said remediation of students wastes money that could used to hire more teachers or support more science- and technology-based education.

A model such as Busy Bees would reduce or eliminate that waste of money while preparing children better for school, Gerstle said.

Burnett said it’s notable that Pence wants to help at-risk and disadvantaged children through pre-kindergarten education.

Burnett added that he hopes Bartholomew County will serve as one of the state’s pre-kindergarten pilot programs.

Until school corporations statewide receive funds for pre-kindergarten programs, Columbus will continue to invest in the Busy Bees Academy, said Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent John Quick.

Local changes

Busy Bees is offered at Clifty and Taylorsville elementary schools and at the R.L. Johnson Education Center to about 185 students. Next school year, it will be offered exclusively at the R.L. Johnson Education Center and at the Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea campus.

Because of funding cuts by the Community Education Coalition and the Heritage Fund, next school year’s version of Busy Bees will shave its five-day school week to four days, raises weekly tuition for full-day instruction to $90 from $80 and possibly will cut the number of scholarships.

Pre-kindergarten education efforts in the Bartholomew Consolidated district have not received overwhelming public support. Voters in the November election rejected a property tax increase that would have generated $1.8 million a year to support education for 4-year-olds.

Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. does not have any public pre-kindergarten programs, except for special-education students, said FRHC Superintendent Kathy Griffey.

FRHC relies on two private preschool programs to help prepare its students: Community Center of Hope and Morningstar Preschool at Hope Moravian Church.

Funding issues

“I would be hopeful of expanding pre-K funding beyond what there is,” Griffey said.

But she said cutting funds for other education programs to pay for pre-K would be wrong.

Holliday and Quick said they hope Pence’s pledge to continue expanding educational opportunities results in state funding for pre-K, a grade level that is not required by state law.

Quick said funding pre-kindergarten education could be slow to materialize, as it has been for kindergarten funding.

The state funds kindergarten students at half the rate of students in Grades 1-12 — $2,600 compared to $5,200. A grant this year helped make up nearly all the difference for school districts statewide so they could offer full-day kindergarten for free.

The one-year grant of $2,400 per kindergarten student means BCSC gets $5,000 per kindergartner — $200 less than its other students, Quick said. The Indiana Legislature must decide if it will provide additional kindergarten funding again.

The school system received a total of $4.25 million this school year.

Pence’s budget calls for about $6.4 billion in education spending the next two years, with another $64 million slated for high-performing schools at the start of the 2015 budget year.

State lawmakers approved $6.55 billion for schools in 2011 and $6.6 billion in 2012, but those amounts were later trimmed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

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