How one Indiana preschool is making the most of On My Way Pre-K

By Shelby Mullis
TheStatehouseFile.com

Editor’s note: This story is a part of series tracking how money and resources in the state’s $32.3 billion two-year budget and other programs are spent. 

INDIANAPOLIS — When the clock strikes eight, Angielena Williams is standing outside her classroom door ready to greet her 20 pre-K students with a hug.

“Good morning, Mr. Jonah,” she says as students enter the room. “Beef nachos or ham and cheese for lunch?”

After the greeting, Williams’ teaching assistant leads them to the board where they answer the daily review question. Today, it’s how many stages are included in the life cycle of a butterfly, a review of the prior day’s lesson.

Williams is finishing her second year as a preschool teacher at Warren Early Childhood Center in Indianapolis.

The center is one of more than 130 Marion County pre-K providers accredited through the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program. The program invites low-income families to apply for a grant for their 4-year-old to gain access to a high-quality pre-K program the year before kindergarten.

“Working with families is the most exciting part,” Williams said. “When I work with the families, I get to know more about the children, so it overall helps the classrooms. Making that good home/school connection is the best part.”

Warren Early Childhood Center — a tuition-based institution — is organized like an elementary school, unlike most pre-K providers. With more than 20 certified staff members and 355 students, it is one of Indiana’s largest On My Way Pre-K providers.

It also offers a public developmental preschool for children who qualify for special education services and daycare services.

The school has been around for a couple of decades and became an On My Way Pre-K accredited program when the pilot launched two years ago.

Angielena Williams reads a book to her pre-K class at the Warren Early Childhood Center. The center is an On My Way Pre-K accredited pre-K provider. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

In order to qualify for the state’s pilot program, which currently exists in only five Indiana counties, accredited private and public schools or community-based programs must achieve a Level 3 or 4 rating in the state’s Paths to QUALITY voluntary childcare quality rating system.

This means the school must meet the health and safety needs of all children, create an environment that supports children’s learning and offer a curriculum that guides child development and school readiness. To reach a Level 4, the school must do all of the above and have national accreditation, which Indiana calls the highest indicator of quality.

But contentious debate throughout this year’s legislative session left several Hoosiers wondering whether the On My Way Pre-K program was ready for expansion.

Children enrolled in pre-K education programs perform better than children not enrolled, according to a 2017 report released by the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. These children also had better learning outcomes later on in their education career and were more likely to graduate high school and retain their jobs over students who did not attend a pre-K program.

Now, Warren Early Childhood Center stands as an advocate for the state’s pre-K pilot program, and Williams is encouraging parents across the state to invest in the early education of their children.

A teacher assistant plays along with a student in Angielena Williams’s pre-K class at the Warren Early Childhood Center. The center is an On My Way Pre-K accredited pre-K provider. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

To expand or not to expand?

The state’s pilot program, On My Way Pre-K, launched in 2015 under former Gov. Mike Pence’s leadership.

In order to qualify for the program, a student’s family income in Allen, Jackson, Marion, Lake and Vanderburgh counties must not exceed 127 percent of the federal poverty limit. For example, a family of four could make no more than $30,861 a year in order to apply. The goal is to serve children with the most need.

Through Indianapolis Republican Rep. Bob Behning’s legislation this year, the pilot program will expand to 15 additional counties in the state with $22 million in funding each year. This is $12 million more than the pilot program currently receives. Nearly all of that money will go into On My Way Pre-K classrooms. UPSTART, an online pre-K classroom where students learn for 15 minutes five days a week, will receive $1 million.

“I’m thrilled our lawmakers are providing thousands of low-income Hoosier families access to high quality early education,” Holcomb said in a statement following the passage of House Bill 1004. “This important legislation gives more children in more counties the chance to start their educational journey on the right foot.”

But one ongoing debate over the pre-K bill earlier this year was whether to allow parents who receive the On My Way Pre-K grant to also receive a voucher for kindergarten, which would ultimately make the voucher program more accessible earlier on to parents. In Indiana, kindergarten is optional, meaning that in many districts children have access only to private programs.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, voted against the final version of the bill because of the voucher language included.

“There’s a lot of discussion about, ‘Well, there’s not really that many kids that will be impacted by this or that will qualify,’” Lanane said. “The problem, of course, is the way that vouchers work is that once a child becomes qualified it opens up the door for expansions of the vouchers by way of further siblings that follow thereafter, and there’s nothing in that bill that prevents that.”

Despite contentious debate, Behning said the voucher language is not an expansion of the state’s vouchers, but instead a way of smoothing out the process for Indiana families.

The pre-K expansion bill passed the House 82-16 and the Senate 31-19. Holcomb signed it into law on April 26.

A father of 355 students

Warren Early Childhood Center Principal Chris Gearlds, an advocate of On My Way Pre-K, was thrilled to see the increase in funding for the program, including the vouchers.

Of the school’s 355 enrolled students, 119 received the state’s On My Way Pre-K scholarship in order to attend the school. This covers the student’s tuition, which is $125 per week at Warren for all-day pre-K.

A student at Warren Early Childhood Center uses an iPad during one of the learning stations. He is one of 20 students in Angielena Williams’s pre-K class. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

Gearlds said that without the financial help, many parents would not be able to send their children to the program.

“Data has shown our scholars are exiting our program at kindergarten and/or first grade levels,” he said, explaining he tracks the progress former students have made after graduating from the program and continuing their education through elementary school.

“When the kids go onto kindergarten, we know especially over the last five years, that the kids are socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten,” Gearlds said. “Townships see this across the state that when kids come in, sometimes that’s their first experience in a school setting so you have one teacher and 26 or 27 five-year-olds that may have never seen school.”

Growing up, Gearlds was considered an at-risk child.

“I’m from a broken home with a single mom,” he said, recalling his childhood.

Living with his single mother, Gearlds learned to adapt to life without a father figure in the home. At the time, a program similar to On My Way Pre-K was not available to Gearlds.

Despite the at-home struggles he and his mother faced, one elementary school teacher’s early impact on Gearld’s life influenced him in his own educator role.

Angielena Williams’s invites a student to aid her in a classroom activity in her pre-K class. Williams has taught at the Warren Early Childhood Center for two years. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

“Here, especially in Warren Township and across the state, so many children come from different backgrounds and one of my biggest pushes here at this program was to get our dads involved,” he said.

One of several programs Gearlds has established at the childhood center is a Dad’s Club, which aims to involve fathers in their child’s early childhood lives at schools. But for the children who may live in a similar household as Gearlds growing up, he tries to fill the gap.

“People ask me how many children I have, and I have two of my own, but I have 355 that I would say are mine every single day,” he said. “That’s my passion, or calling, is to make sure I take care of every kid that walks into our program.”

A chain reaction of impact

The impact of the On My Way Pre-K pilot program doesn’t stop at the administration.

For Latara Hampton and her son Cahlil, a scholarship recipient, the program has changed their lives, she said. Cahlil is finishing up his second and final year at the Warren Early Childhood Center.

“Last year was kind of rocky considering the fact he was extremely young. It was his first time away from home,” Hampton said. “It was pretty difficult on me and him, as well. I wanted to take him out, because I felt like they didn’t have to deal with the issue that he was bringing to them.”

But the staff at the center encouraged her to keep him in the program, and she’s glad they did.

A student at Warren Early Childhood Center uses a magnifying glass to observe butterfly models. He is one of 20 students in Angielena Williams’s pre-K class. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

Since Cahlil has started his second year, Hampton said it’s been “nothing but a cake walk. Enrolling in the program has led him to improve his communication skills and make new friends, which has made the experience even better, his mom added.

“Perfect, honestly,” she said. “All the teachers are equally involved, as well as Mr. Gearlds. Most schools you go to, the principal isn’t really involved in everyday things. He’s equally involved just as the teachers are.”

Without the program, though, Hampton said it would not have been possible for Cahlil to attend the center. Because of her income, she qualified for the grant when her son turned 4 years old.

“If you want to put your child in a good school, preschool or daycare, it’s pretty expensive,” Hampton said. “[On My Way Pre-K is] probably one of the best things they did for parents with young kids who can’t actually attend schools.”

Shelby Mullis is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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