Every fall in Fort Wayne, thousands of children enter kindergarten, yet nearly 25 percent of those students are not learning-ready in that they lack the social and emotional skills necessary for succeeding in school—basics we take for granted, like knowing the alphabet, counting to 10, distinguishing colors and the ability to interact with others. Preparing these preschool-aged children for kindergarten has become one of the top collaborative efforts for United Way of Allen County, which has just launched the On My Way Pre-K pilot program.
At United Way of Allen County (UWAC), there are four primary focus areas for the community: basic needs, education, financial stability and healthy lives. While each is important in its own way, roughly one-third of the organization’s investments in the community go toward education. “The research is clear,” says UWAC president and CEO, David Nicole. “If a child enters kindergarten prepared, their odds of success throughout their school career are significantly higher than if they do not enter kindergarten learning-ready.”
The first order of business was to identify the gaps in the existing education system and to fill those gaps appropriately. It became apparent that major gaps are identified by the age of 4, causing the state of Indiana to test out a pre-kindergarten program in five counties. After speaking with community and business leaders to advocate for such a program in Allen County, UWAC began working with the Family and Social Services Agency (FSSA) to begin piloting the On My Way Pre-K program, creating the infrastructure for quality, four-year-old preschool.
Obtaining necessary funding provided its own challenges, as legislation was necessary to secure the funding for more than a one-year pilot program, states Nicole. This was critical since Allen County is responsible for paying 10 percent of the total provided by the state. For example, if a full-year’s tuition for On My Way Pre-K is $6,800, the county owes $680 and the state pays the rest.
For many, a quality preschool education is a no-brainer when thinking about the next generation. But a big challenge faced by UWAC is reaching parents and convincing them of the importance of kindergarten readiness for their children. “When families do not value education, there is a lack of books in the home, there is a lack of literacy beyond third-grade level and kids are watching TV instead of reading and having meaningful interactions. Children enter kindergarten at different levels,” says Nicole.
As of June 19, there were 436 applicants for the On My Way Pre-K program that begins August 2015. There are currently 229 children signed up and the goal is to have 300 enrolled. Additionally, this past January the UWAC ran a “pilot of the pilot” with 50 children, yielding positive results and an overall sense of success for UWAC and the education providers.
“Longevity has been a concern for our preschool providers,” says Ruthie Hall, manager of education and health for UWAC. “This three-year funding helps ease their worries and helps motivate them to get on board. Right now we have 42 providers in the On My Way Pre-K program for parents to choose from. Our hope is that number will continue to grow as the program grows over the next few years.”
The main objective with the pilot program is to prove that quality preschool helps ready kids for kindergarten, first-grade and beyond. In August of 2016, the State plans to develop a common kindergarten readiness assessment.
“If you don’t measure it, you don’t know,” says Nicole. “Measuring the effectiveness of the program is critical. We will have data to take to the Department of Education, to the state and to the public as a whole to show that this program works. We are going to be able to see whether the pilot program is successful. The key to improving the program in the long run is continuous quality improvement, and always learning and listening.”
The success of the program will depend on community engagement and an open communication between parents, providers and resources. For UWAC, the education collaborative with On My Way Pre-K goes far beyond the preschool-aged children in Fort Wayne; these children will someday lead our community. “Early childhood education is an economic development issue,” says Nicole. “We want to see increased financial stability in our community; we want to see people earning good jobs and employers bringing quality jobs here in the future.”