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As January Deadline Looms, Schools Still Deciding Who Will Be In Pre-K Pilots

Jeanne Christine

Indiana’s pre-k pilot program launches in four of the five participating counties in January. But many leaders in those counties say they’re still finalizing the details – crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s of fundraising, getting providers up to speed and children into the classrooms.

The clock is ticking. A little less than a month remains until a new flock of learners makes their way into pre-k classrooms in Allen, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties.

Dennis Rittenmeyer checks the days off on his calendar. He’s the executive director of the group One Region in Lake County, and a leader for the area’s pilot efforts.

"We’re still dealing with issues that the state and we ourselves…are working through," Rittenmeyer says. "So that material just came out, for example, it was supposed to have been out a long time ago."

The Family and Social Services Administration, or FSSA, released applications for providers who want to participate on November 12. Grant applications for eligible families went out the following week. They’re due December 15.

Rittenmeyer says he’s concerned there’s a lot left to do and only a little time in which to do it.

"We’re supposed to start in six weeks! They have to find a provider that has space – that’s a big deal," he says.

"You can only move so fast when you’re opening new classrooms, hiring new teachers, doing training and getting prepared," says FSSA Director of Early Childhood Education Melanie Brizzi. She says her organization is following the timeline as planned, and that she feels families do have enough time to get their business in order and their application submitted.

"The application process is pretty simple," Brizzi says. "There are folks available to help with that. For this first group of children that are going to be enrolled, that they are going to be a smaller number. And that has everything to do with that capacity."

Capacity: how many slots for new kids providers have available. Those exact aren't set yet numbers yet. Brizzi says it depends on who’s really ready to serve kids appropriately.

"So we want to make sure that we’re starting to serve children as quickly as possible, but that there is more than enough high quality pre-k programs available. This is a brand new program, so building capacity just takes time. If you give them 6-8 more months, before the start of the [2015-2016] school year, that capacity is going to significantly grow, because we are working with local communities," Brizzi says.

The FSSA has dispatched quality coaches to help existing programs reach the state’s Paths to Quality standards. They’re also offering teacher training.                                                                                                                                              

One way Lake County is trying to circumvent the issue of capacity is linking onto providers that are already in operation. Karen Carradine, another Lake County leader, pitches it like this:

"Look, you’re already open, and you may already have an opening, so now this is just a child that’s going to come into the process you already have in place," she says. "I have a base program, its easier for me to start in January, and bringing in that pre-k will be a supplement to that. The January group, we’re only going to have half a year. By September we will be able to help many more of the school districts create their base."

The same is happening in Allen County, where leaders hope to serve at least 30 to 50 eligible kids during the initial launch. John Peirce spearheads the pilot, and he says another piece of the puzzle is figuring out where kids will be placed.

Peirce, a consultant to the United Way of Allen County, says he’s getting help from neighborhood housing authorities.

"They can identify the ages of individuals in the different housing units in they manage so that we can target our appeals to families, especially around providers that are close by," Peirce says. "We know transportation can be an issue, so part of our effort will be trying to target our marketing to families in areas that are in the same neighborhoods as eligible providers." 

The FSSA will select kids to fill each county’s open slots through a random lottery drawing. Carradine says it’s no secret who’s eligible in her area. Head Start in Northwest Indiana has a wait list of more than 1000 families. Lake County hopes to serve 100 to 150 of those kids in January.

For Carradine and everyone involved in each of the counties, the goal is to reach those families most in need.

"There is a shelf that’s given to who is eligible, but as we know in all things that are human bound, there are levels of degrees of eligibility, and so I think with lottery that kind of tears at the fabric of that," Carradine says.

The lottery is scheduled for December 17, after which the FSSA will send names of selected families to pilot leaders.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how counties are finalizing the funding leading up to the launch.

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