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Show Me The Money: Fundraising Efforts For On My Way Pre-K

Rachel Morello

The state’s new preschool pilot program, On My Way Pre-K, launches in January in four of the five pilot counties. Creating an education program from scratch takes time, creativity and a lot of money, regardless of the $10 million allocated to the program from the Family and Social Services Administration. $10 million doesn’t go as far as one might think when divided by the five counties and split between the two thousand eligible children.

That’s why as part of the law that created the program, selected counties are required to raise at least 10 percent in matching funds to put toward student scholarships. These funds can be from private donations or federal grants.

Governor Pence announced the five counties in July, leaving those in charge of fundraising a few months to find hundreds of thousands of dollars before the January launch in Allen, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties.

‘It’s frustrating because it’s a moving target’

Lake County, home to Gary, East Chicago and Crown Point, has more than 1,000 children on the waiting list for Head Start, the current option for low-income preschool. The need is there, but an abundance of donors is not, according to Dennis Rittenmeyer who is in charge of fundraising for Lake County’s program.

Rittenmeyer says the county will meet the 10 percent match, but he has received some pushback from potential donors.

“Several donors that I have talked to, even though in some cases they still are agreeing to support this effort, have said they don’t like it because it really is the state’s responsibility,” Rittenmeyer says. “It’s not private foundations’ responsibility to run ongoing public education.”

Another obstacle to Rittenmeyer’s fundraising efforts is the future of the program.

“It’s frustrating because it’s a moving target,” he says.

That moving target is some ambiguity attached to the program. Lake County, along with three others, chose to move the start date up from next summer to this January. Rittenmeyer also says some people plan to lobby the legislature to extend the program for more than just a year. All of this moving and possible expansion makes Rittenmeyer’s job of asking for money more tricky.

“So when I was asked by donors, ‘are you going to come back next year,’ I said, ‘no, this is a one-year program,’” Rittenmeyer says.

But Rittenmeyer can’t promise eligible kids more than a one-year scholarship, and can’t guarantee teachers a long-term job – because for now, the assumption has to be that the program will end after one year.

At the other end of the state in Vanderburgh County, leaders are planning for the possibility the program might be extended. The country’s program leader, Jennifer Drake, says they were fortunate to meet their 10 percent fundraising goal early, so now they have time to begin thinking ahead.

“We’re working on being well positioned for that,” Drake says. “Then balancing that with what needs exist in addition to the scholarships that make On My Way Pre-K successful now.”

Successful Fundraising Comes From An Engaged Corporate Community

Jeff Kucer is one of the dozens of people who regularly attend planning meetings for the Marion County pilot program. He contributes ideas for recruiting families and providers, even though he’s not a teacher or an early childhood expert – he’s a business guy. Kucer works for PNC Bank, which committed half a million dollars to On My Way Pre-K of Marion County, because the company’s philanthropic focus is on early education.

This donation is an example of what Lake County is missing: a large gift from a big corporation or foundation. Although the bank has branches all around the state, Kucer says donating the money to the Marion County program rather than one of the other pilot counties made the most sense.

“Our greatest concentration of employees, and branches and work is done in Marion County,” Kucer says.

According to Beth Stroh, the lead contact for the Marion County program, PNC’s donation helped their program easily reach its 10 percent matching goal and have some left over.

“We have a special designation from them of an additional grant amount,” Stroh says. “So we won’t include that in the match, because all of the match dollars have to go toward the scholarships, but it’s an addition to match dollars so we can do other things we think are important to get the word out to families.”

The extra money is helping pay for marketing materials to recruit families and providers.

Back in Lake County, Rittenmeyer hopes to be at this point soon. He and everyone across the state involved in the fundraising efforts agree once the program is started, and a stricter timeline is in place, it will be easier to convince donors to help out.

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