Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 6, 2013

Closing the gap

Officials say preschool expansion is a step in the right direction.

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

— Kokomo-Center Schools moved a step closer to universal preschool Monday night when the district’s board members unanimously approved an expansion to the preschool program.

The district expects to reach almost twice as many students next year. Superintendent Jeff Hauswald said an additional 200 students would likely have access to preschool because of the expansion.

“And that’s a conservative estimate,” he said, with a smile.

His quest will not end there, though.

“We won’t stop until every child attends preschool,” Hauswald said.

The district may have a ways to go, according to census data.

Data estimates from 2011 indicate that 663 of Howard County’s 3- and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in preschool — about 45 percent of the county’s children that age.

Hauswald said the district’s latest expansion is a definite step in the right direction.

By next year, Kokomo-Center Schools will expand the free community preschool at Elwood Haynes Elementary School and open another free community preschool at Pettit Park Elementary School.

Lafayette Park Elementary School will host an International Baccalaureate and high-ability preschool program, which is being launched at the request of local parents, Hauswald said.

The international preschool program will include Spanish instruction and project-based learning.

“This high-ability international preschool program will promote discovery and prepare these young students to become internationally minded,” said Sharon Hahn, Lafayette Park International Elementary School principal. “Our inquiry-based program will stimulate creativity, encourage curiosity and develop the skills necessary to be academically successful in future school years.”

But all students really need to know to find success in kindergarten are the basics — an understanding of their shapes, colors, numbers and letters, said Bill Stanczykiewicz, CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.

Many low-income students don’t have a grasp of even those concepts by the time they’re 5 years old, Stanczykiewicz said.

He said low-income students often start kindergarten two grade levels behind their middle-class peers, and they never catch up.

“It’s mostly the product of the low education levels in the household,” Stanczykiewicz said.

Parents are often willing to teach their children shapes, numbers, colors and letters, but many aren’t able to because of their own low education level.

A preschool education can put those at-risk students on equal footing with their peers, Stanczykiewicz said.

That’s so important, said Kokomo-Center Schools board member Cristi Brewer-Allen.

People often ask her how the district is going to raise its ISTEP scores. It’s going to come through a solid preschool program, she said.

“This is the answer to passing ISTEP,” she said.

People are often so focused on the finish line — getting kids to graduate and go to college — that they often forget to focus on early childhood education, Stanczykiewicz said.

But the two are linked, he said. If students fall behind early, they’re more likely to drop out before they graduate high school.

That comes with a price for the state.

Stanczykiewicz said every high school dropout costs taxpayers $2 million over a lifetime.

People across the state, including state lawmakers, are starting to understand the significance of early childhood education.

But for right now, if local districts want their own preschool programs, it may fall to them to figure out how to fund it.

Kokomo’s preschool expansion is being funded by local grants and state and federal dollars, Hauswald said.

Perhaps the state will consider funding early childhood education eventually. It’s definitely on the minds of state lawmakers, Stanczykiewicz said.

“State leaders on both sides of the aisle are taking a close look it,” he said. “Everybody knows the research. Everybody knows the value of preschools. The question now is how do we pay for this long term.”