INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Children in poverty enter kindergarten up to two years behind other children and the gap only widens as they progress through school, but one Indianapolis pre-school is actively closing the gap for hundreds of kids each year, mostly for free.
"We believe every child is confident and capable," says Connie Sherman, executive director of St. Mary's Child Center .
St. Mary's Child Center has adopted a unique approach to pre-school education developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy. In 1991, Newsweek magazine named schools in this area as some of the top pre-primary schools in the world. The designation incited a worldwide interest in the school's approach.
The "Reggio" approach views children as competent learners who can create and direct the curriculum. Teachers act as "co-researchers" who follow the children's interests and encourage them in projects to explore their chosen topic.
"We don't pour our knowledge into a child," says Sherman. "We allow the child to discover the world with the teacher's guidance."
The school's innovative approach to education costs the Child Center between $6,500 and $7,000 per student annually. Sherman says 95 percent of the school's 235 students live in poverty; 10 percent receive CCDF vouchers from the state of Indiana, resulting in free tuition; 85 percent of students pay just $5 a week to attend.
"We have 5 percent of our students here who pay tuition," says Sherman. "That's because there are families who see what we're doing, they value diversity, and they want their children to experience that from a young age."
The school actively educates an underserved group in Central Indiana. One in four children in Indiana lives in poverty. Studies show that children in poverty are read to only 25 hours before entering first grade, compared to 1,400-1,700 hours for their middle class peers.
Michele Bailey's 4-year-old daughter Aleigha has attended the school for eight months.
"We have vouchers because I am a single mother and I am a student at Ivy Tech, so I don't have the funds to pay for this quality childcare that we get," says Bailey.
Out of the school's $1.8 million operating budget, St. Mary's Board is responsible for raising $1.1 million.
"Over 70 percent of the money comes in the form of scholarship," says Joe Breen, a senior vice president with Huntington Bank and St. Mary's Vice Board Chair. "[Scholarship is] donations, some corporate support, but mainly individual support."
To meet the need, St. Mary's Board hosts four major fundraisers a year to reach the $1.1 million goal. On June 27, the Board will host the 33rd Annual Raffle at Champps Indy North at 6 p.m.
"There's about 300 prizes and it's $100 a ticket, and we try to come out of that with about $100,000 net," says Breen.
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St. Mary's Child Center began a partnership with Butler University in 2007 called the Educational Outreach Program. The program provides a series of professional development opportunities to educators, focusing on teachers who work with poor children. The goal is to support the educator's understanding of high quality practices.
In the years since the partnership was formed, St. Mary's has hosted more than 1,200 visitors to the school to observe their use of the Reggio philosophy.
"We've worked with enough educators now to have made an impact on 56,000 children in the U.S. and Canada," says Sherman.
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