Program director Erin Crane plays with Joey Cabellero, center, and Destin Backus on Friday at South Bend's El Campito Child Development Center, which is among the pre-kindergarten providers in St. Joseph County that have been approved to accept children as part of the state's $22 million expansion of pre-k access for low-income families. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
For the first time, Michiana parents are enrolling their children in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, with St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties among the areas where Indiana's expanded "On My Way Pre-K" will roll out on a limited basis in January.
Last year, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a $22 million expansion of state funding to help low-income families in 15 additional counties send their children to preschool. The state pre-k funding will be available in a total of 20 counties by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall, along with Kosciusko, are among the 10 counties that will participate in a "soft rollout" of the program in January. Early childhood coalitions expect to enroll perhaps a few dozen children in each of those counties for January. Applications opened Sept. 25.
"More families and young children, especially the most under-resourced, have a chance to participate in high-quality early learning," said Emily Rupchock, coordinator of the "Ready to Grow St. Joe" coalition, "so it's a big win for us."
Supporters of expanded pre-k access, including the Indiana Chamber, have pointed to research that shows early childhood learning can lead to better chances of success in school and work.
For some poor families, pre-k has been available through the federally funded "Head Start" and "Title I" programs, which both have offered preschool at public school buildings.
But funding limitations have left hundreds of eligible children on waitlists for those programs in area counties, and pre-k advocates had long called for state dollars. On My Way Pre-k launched as a pilot program in five counties in 2015, and lawmakers last year approved funding for 15 more counties in a stripped-down version of the $50 million expansion Holcomb requested.