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Area Children to Get Access to Pre-K

Published Friday, June 9, 2017

More local children from low-income families will soon be able to attend preschool as the state is set to expand funding to St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties.

State officials Wednesday announced the 15 counties that were selected to join the pre-kindergarten voucher program as part of the $22 million expansion signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this spring. The "On My Way Pre-K" program will now include 20 counties.

In the announcement Wednesday, Holcomb said the new counties are expected to enroll eligible 4-year-olds in pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, with the possibility of a limited program starting in January.

According to the state Family and Social Services Administration, at least 400 children in St. Joseph County could be eligible for the program, which offers vouchers to families with an annual household income up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $31,000 for a family of four.

Matt Harrington, CEO of the United Way of St. Joseph County, said the chance to attend high-quality preschools would be a big benefit for disadvantaged kids as they begin their academic careers.

"There's a lot of research that shows how much brain development happens before age 5," Harrington said. "To the extent we can provide children with high-quality pre-K education, the more likely they'll be able to learn the first day they walk into kindergarten."

Holcomb and others, including Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, have pointed to quality preschool as a step toward improving the state's future workforce.

In Elkhart County, an estimated 150 children would be eligible for the program, and an estimated 114 in Marshall County, said Marni Lemons, a spokeswoman for the FSSA.

Of the 27 counties that applied for the expanded funding, the state chose 15 based on factors that included the number of eligible children, the number of providers to accommodate those children and the rate at which local children have to repeat kindergarten. Rural counties, such as Marshall, also were prioritized.

It remains unclear if all the eligible families will receive money from the state, or how the eligible families will be selected to receive vouchers. Lemons said the state will be working with county nonprofit coalitions to determine the target number of children and the cost per child, which can vary between counties.

Each county coalition, which in St. Joseph County's case is coordinated by the United Way, also will be required to contribute 5 percent of the total cost to serve the county's target children.

Once the target number of eligible children and the funding needs are determined, the state will begin accepting applications from parents, likely by the end of summer, Lemons said.

Eligible providers, which can include public and private schools, for-profit childcare centers and faith-based preschools, also will need to apply with the state to opt in. Only providers rated as level three or four by the state's quality rating system will be accepted.

While Harrington said the expansion is a step in the right direction, he also expressed doubt that all the area's underprivileged children would be covered by the new funding.

"I hope this is a step toward universal pre-K in the future," he said. "This is great, but it's still not going to serve every kid who needs it."

Source South Bend Tribune

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