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Students of Kim Stamper's class engage in drawing treasure maps during a class activity. The students, from left, are Atallie East, 4, Kealy Baugher, 4 and Alexandria Brown. (Joey Leo l For The Republic)
Midday bus transportation, available for the first time this school year in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., is giving more 4-year-old children an opportunity to get an early start on learning.
Statistics compiled by school district officials show a 23.3 percent increase since last year in the number of 4-year-olds participating in Busy Bees and Title 1, the only pre-K programs available in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
With three children who have now been involved in preschool programming, single parent Melissa Grimes sees the value of early education. Her youngest daughter currently attends the Busy Bees program at the R.L. Johnson Early Education Center, 1209 Sycamore St.
But the addition of midday bus transportation has made pre-K practically and financially accessible in general, particularly for those in the Title 1 program, said Cathne Holliday, the district’s director of pre-K programming.
The number of Title 1 students attending the BCSC pre-K program jumped 60.5 percent in a single year.
Title I is the nation’s largest single program of federal aid for schoolchildren, according to the Indiana Department of Education. It allocates funds to schools to offset the effects of poverty on children’s educational opportunities. Services are based on academic need, not income.
Busy Bees costs $90 a week to parents who can afford it. However, scholarships worth as much as $3,240 apiece for the school year are available through local donors for families that qualify. That pulls the amount down to as little as $5 a week for families.
Last year, many parents whose children were eligible for the half-day Title 1 program couldn’t arrange their own transportation in the middle of the day, Holliday said.
She said that led to many parents pulling their children out of prekindergarten or never enrolling them in it at all.
Then came changes this year to Busy Bees that created a half-day Busy Bees option for the first time. That change included providing midday bus transportation to all 4-year-olds, including Title 1 students.
Enrollment in the pre-K programs has grown from a total of about 330 last school year to 407 this school year. That’s despite a 12.5 percent drop in Busy Bees enrollment itself that resulted from reduced funding for scholarships.
But school district leaders think there is another reason for the enrollment spike: Parents are beginning to understand that starting children in school at 4 years old helps prepare them to excel in the years to come.
Grimes said she became a believer in pre-K when the Busy Bees program began three years ago. She said she needed an affordable alternative to day care while working as a bartender on the Camp Atterbury campus.
She discovered Busy Bees, a new program in the BCSC district that offered scholarships to parents who wanted to send their children to pre-K but couldn’t because of the expense.
Grimes’ twin children, Hayle and Gracie, who were part of that first Busy Bees class, went on to do well in kindergarten and continue to do well as first- and second-graders, she said.
Grimes believes in the benefits of sending children to school at 4 years old, even though the state doesn’t require schooling until first grade.
She is studying to become a paralegal at Ivy Tech Community College _ Columbus/Franklin, while continuing to work part time.
Grimes said she never would have had enough time to work with her daughter on her own to prepare the girl for kindergarten.
Because of Busy Bees, Grimes can do what she needs to do to improve her career and increase financial opportunities while knowing that her daughter’s education is in good hands.
She said her children have learned songs in their classes that have taught important material such as the ABCs, for example, that have clearly helped them in kindergarten.
Bonnita Russell, a homemaker, said she enrolled her twins, Brooklyn and Braden, in Busy Bees because of the program’s positive reputation. She said her children have been learning to count to 10 in Spanish and are beginning to learn the Spanish words for various colors.
The school district first partnered with the nonprofit Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County in 2010 in a move that emphasized the value they placed on early education by giving students a head start in their schooling.
Partners dedicated $1.6 million to help start and sustain the three-year Busy Bees pilot program, which was held five days a week at the time in a full-day option only.
With the end of that program approaching in May, a public referendum last November asked to sustain the program for seven years by shifting costs to taxpayers.
When that effort failed, a scaled-back version of Busy Bees was crafted for this school year due to continuing support from community partners. The schedule was reduced to four days a week, and a half-day option was introduced to save money and reach more families.
During the summer, the Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund announced it had raised $1 million from donors to send 100 additional children to full-day Busy Bees this school year and next school year.
That paved the way for a number of parents below a financial threshold to make the most of their opportunity.
Superintendent John Quick estimated that 85 percent of 4-year-olds within the boundaries of the Bartholomew Consolidated school district are currently plugged into educational opportunities at public or private schools.
He predicted the percentage of 4-year-olds attending prekindergarten will continue to climb in the years ahead as people begin to think of early education as much of a standard part of their children’s lives as kindergarten.
Although kindergarten isn’t required by state law either, only one student out of 850 first-graders in the district last school year came to first grade without having attended kindergarten first, Quick said.
He said it gives him hope that the public eventually will step up to fund prekindergarten so the program can be self-sustaining.
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