WALTON – The Lewis Cass Early Learning Academy (LCELA) will expand its services and open more seats after receiving a $100,000 grant from Early Learning Indiana.

The LCELA was one of 18 early learning facilities in Indiana to receive a Closing the Gap grant. LCELA Preschool Coordinator Angela Johnson said the grant will be used to host a resource fair for parents and split two bathrooms at the academy into four.

The additional bathrooms will allow the academy to open one more infant classroom and another toddler room. The new classrooms will create 18 new spots at the academy and raise total enrollment from 135 children to 170.

The LCEA serves children between 6 months and 12 years old, but Johnson said spots are in high demand, particularly for young children from 6 months to 2 years old.

Infant and toddler classrooms are capped by the state at eight and 10 seats per classroom, respectively. Those classrooms are more expensive to provide, which has caused many early learning programs to cater exclusively to children above 3 years old.

“When the grant (request) was written, we had 15 kids on our waiting list,” Johnson said. “The point of the Closing the Gap grant is to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities.”

There is a clear need for such opportunities in Cass County. Early Learning Indiana (ELI) published a report this year called Closing the Gap: An Assessment of Indiana’s Early Learning Opportunities.

The report rated access to early learning opportunities across the state and addressed gaps in program accessibility.

The report looked at the capacity, quality, affordability and choice of early learning programs in each county. It then rated counties between zero and 100, with areas above 80 having adequate access to early learning, areas between 80 and 60 having moderate access, and areas under 60 having inadequate access.

Cass County was rated inadequate, with a score of 52 — well below the state average of 60.6. ELI reported 44 early learning programs in Cass County, with a total of 686 seats. Out of those seats, only 322 were identified as high-quality.

In terms of infant and toddler care, Cass County lags even further behind. ELI only found 24 early learning programs in Cass County that offer seats for infants and toddlers.

ELI Senior Director of Community Outreach and Engagement Natalie Brake said a lack of quality child care has profound impacts on communities and can be a long-term problem.

From loss of family income to kids dropping out of high school and earning less than their peers, the absence of early learning opportunities affect families and communities after their children are grown.

“There are many trends that we see immediately with families who are not able to access care,” Brake said. “For the children within the community, in the next five, 10, 15 years, we continue to see the effects of the lack of access impact them in a negative way.”

Another prohibitive factor in early learning is cost. ELI found that the median family income in Cass County is about $56,781 per year. The average yearly cost of a full-time early learning program in Cass County is about $6,410. This means enrolling one child in early learning could cost a family 11.3% of their yearly income.

“When a community lacks access to early learning programs, families have to make hard decisions,” Brake said. “Does someone have to not work? …People struggle economically. There’s a financial aspect to it.”

Brake said additional factors, like program hours and age restrictions, can also be prohibitive if, for example, pickup times fall within a parent’s working hours or a 4-year-old child is eligible to enroll in a program but their 2-year-old sibling does not meet the age requirement.

Closing the Gap grants are one way to address access gaps in early education programs, but Brake said there is still a long way to go. Programs like the LCELA are on the right track.

Brake agrees with the LCELA that adding infant and toddler classes in Cass County is crucial. Additionally, she said ELI also took notice of the academy’s plan to host a resource fair for parents.

“That was something we noted in their proposal that really spoke to the quality of the program,” Brake said. “High-quality programs put a heavy emphasis on family engagement, so the provider and families are partners when it comes to supporting the growth and development of early learners. The fact that their proposal takes into account connecting families with resources really spoke to their commitment to quality.”

Angela Johnson said the resource fair, titled Back to the Basics: Building Futures Together, will have workshops on topics like fire safety in the home, safe sleep and other topics relevant to parents with small children.

There will also be vendors from colleges, financial institutions, and organizations like the Family Service Association of Howard County and On My Way Pre-K.

The resource fair will be held at the LCELA from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 12. Parents attending the free resource fair will be provided lunch and free child care for the duration of the event.

Brake said it’s critical for parents to be involved with their children’s education and understand their community’s early learning options.

“It’s important to know what access looks like in their community,” she said. “Child care should be in every conversation.”

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