School director: ‘Preschool lays a foundation for everything in life’

(FILE) Pre-K classroom at MLK Montessori

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – Thousands of students across the state are almost half-way done with pre-K thanks to an Indiana pilot. Altogether, Marion, Vanderburgh, Lake, Jackson and Allen Counties are providing pre-K to more than 2,000 students.

The On My Way Pre-K Pilot is currently serving around 220 students across 27 different sites in Allen County. There are 46 sites approved for the program, and the county hopes to expand throughout the years. While the goal is to eventually serve 300 kids, leaders said the program is off to a very promising start.

“It’s going well. We have a lot of children who are getting the things that they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn, so you don’t have to do years of remediation when you have a strong program starting out with,” MLK Montessori Executive Director Greta McKinney said.

Nearly 50 of the students in the pilot are in classrooms at MLK Montessori, making it the largest provider in Allen County. In addition to the classroom experience, students get a variety of services.

“Children are getting screenings for health screenings, vision screenings, dental screenings, hearing screenings, speech screenings, things that are going to impact them to be successful in kindergarten as well as that strong educational foundation,” McKinney said.

Those are all components McKinney called essential for student success.

“If you don’t have those foundational skills when you walk in the door in kindergarten, you’re already a year and a half up to three years behind. If you have any developmental disability or learning disabilities, you’re even further behind?” McKinney said. “Starting children out in Pre-K, you can assess all of those needs early on and help make children’s kindergarten experience a true, rich, learning experience because you’ve already identified their strengths and also their struggles.”

McKinney said the program is working very well and a key component to our nation’s future.

“Our children, in 2032, they’re going to be leading our country. We have to start now when they’re preschoolers and lay a solid foundation to establish critical thinkers so they can lead our nation,” McKinney said. “We want to instill in them how to agree to disagree, but always do what’s best for our communities, for our countries, for our families, and it starts at preschool. We have to quit going outside of our country to find skills and talents. Let’s grow them here, and you have to start in preschool investing your dollars on the front end.”

While the students are benefiting from the program, McKinney said the families as a whole are also at an advantage.

“I think there are so many doors that open to families and knowledge about the importance of education and all of those components that add to education, good nutrition, hearing, dental, vision- all of those things are important to have a quality educational program and to prepare your child to be successful in school,” McKinney said. “They’re taking the information home to their parents and their parents are getting it. So, they’re able to communicate and navigate in our community a lot better just because of On My Way Pre-K.”

Some reports have suggested that families in other counties were denied from the program due to a lack of funding, but leaders in Allen County said that’s likely not the case. Instead, they think it’s probably similiar to what happened locally where families got denied based on too high of incomes or paperwork problems. Around 430 families applied for the program here, but 220 qualified and got accepted. While leaders said it’s a solid start, they also know there are around 1,500 kids at risk in the Allen County area.

“We do know that that’s only a fraction of the children that really need the service. We know that, but that’s why this is a pilot program and the idea behind a pilot program is get our base set and build from there,” United Way of Allen County President & CEO David Nicole said.

90 percent of the pilot’s funding comes from the state, the other 10 percent comes from the counties.

“Allen County has spent about $200,000 to date on On My Way Pre-K. That has brought back into our community $1.6 million,” Nicole said.

The funding for the pilot lasts for three years. Nicole said the community support has been a crucial component to making the program a success in Allen County.

“What’s working here is the partnership between the business community, the foundation community, the nonprofit community, and our providers and also our parents,” Nicole said. “We know when a child enters kindergarten learning ready, they have a much better chance at success in school and in life. When they’re not ready so they don’t know their ABCs, they don’t know how to count to 10, or they don’t know the difference between orange and green, their chances at success are significantly lower. So, we want to see very child enter into kindergarten learning ready.”

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