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Some Hoosier educators think Biden’s free preschool plan could make difference

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — One of the big initiatives from President Joe Biden on Wednesday night was free, universal preschool.

Biden presented the proposal during his first speech to Congress.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township Schools, said he thinks it’s an important concept. “I think it’s a great idea to offer free, universal preschool in the same way that the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) recently talked about free lunch for all students across the country” in the coming school year, Butts said. “These are pretty significant shifts for our families.”

Wayne Township has about 450 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in its preschool; most attend classes in the district’s preschool building. While about half have developmental needs or disabilities, which means school is free, the other half are part of the community preschool that has a weekly charge of $100. In addition, it’s an extra $100 a week for parents who pay to keep their children in child care before or after preschool.

“We know that our students are getting a very high-quality experience,” Butts said. “We can see that when they go to kindergarten. They are much better prepared not only with the academic preparation but also the social/emotional learning preparation.”

The overall cost for the preschool in the Wayne Township district is about $4 million. The district gets $3,000 per special-education preschool student because of grant funding.

Butts said even with the payments from parents, about $1 million of the Wayne Township district’s annual $200 million budget goes to keep the preschool going.

But, he believes its money well spent. “In the first several years which are some of the most formative years, we do see a significant increase between the students who have had a preschool experience, especially a high-quality experience, versus those that have not.”

So far, the district has not had to turn any parents away for a lack of space. But, the district has come close a couple times, especially at the end of the year as more children turn 3 years old.

“Capacity is going to be a significant question and concern,” Butts said.

But, he adds, that growth can be worked around, perhaps by partnering with other facilities. However, he wants to make sure that when Biden promises free preschool, it’s still a high-quality one with accountability.

“Even today, there are varying degrees of what preschools offer,” Butts said. “We see that coming into our kindergarten for students attending preschool in other locations.”

Indianapolis Public Schools has offered a free prekindergarten program for at least 15 years. Up to 720 kids can be part of the program. Before the pandemic, most sites were full. Families must provide their own transportation to school. It’s a full-day program from 8:50 a.m. -3:15 p.m. The budget for this year’s program is $3.8 million, which is fully covered by Title 1.

Wayne Township also has four Title 1 preschool programs at various elementary schools.

Mooresville Consolidated Schools also has a full-day community preschool program. The cost to parents is $475 a month.

Statement

“High quality pre-K experiences are noticeable when a child enters Kindergarten. Since our Indiana Academic Standards changed a few years ago, we have noticed that skill requirements continue to move down the grade levels. It is a misnomer to believe that Kindergarten is about learning colors and numbers. By the end of the Kindergarten year in Mooresville Schools, students are writing full paragraphs and reading short text. Providing a school experience prior to Kindergarten will have great benefits for our students. Preschool helps to provide children with the opportunity to know how ‘school operates’; simple expectations such as listening, sharing, and cooperating with others. It also provides children with the chance to gain basic skills such as identifying letters and numbers. With these skills already mastered by Kindergarten, we will be able to hit the ground running with reading, writing, and math skills.”

Holly Frye, assistant superintendent of Mooresville Consolidated Schools

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