Indiana preschool pilot to begin in 4 counties

Four urban Indiana counties selected for a state-funded preschool pilot program will launch it in early 2015, officials said Wednesday during a day of meetings among state and local officials and educators.

Marion, Allen (Fort Wayne), Lake (Gary) and Vanderburgh (Evansville) County preschools will begin enrolling low-income children receiving state vouchers in January, with rural Jackson County in southern Indiana following later in 2015, WIBC-FM reported.

The Family and Social Services Administration, which is overseeing the pilot program, expects it will serve about 2,000 children, about a fifth of the total the agency estimates would be eligible.

Under the plan, parents meeting low-income guidelines will receive state grants of up to $6,600 to pay for their 4-year-old children to attend public or private schools and certain child care centers, The (Munster) Times reported.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who fought a reluctant GOP-controlled Senate for the state's first preschool funding, said he was confident the daylong training and planning event at the Indiana Government Center would lead to a program eventually serving thousands more children.

"We think it will … create relationships where we can begin today to share best practices and ideas, not only to the implementation of this program early next year but also to the future of pre-K in the state of Indiana," Pence said. "This is vitally important work."

The panel discussions and breakout sessions focused on how to take the next steps in securing local match funding, targeting likely participants, working with preschool providers to improve quality standards and setting child outcome goals.

"(It's) a day of exchanging information, working both within your teams but also with the teams from the other counties, so that we can plan strategically, learn from one another and do everything that we can do — and I know that we will — to ensure a successful pilot," said Melanie Brizzi, head of early learning programs at the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

The General Assembly approved about $10 million for the preschool pilot in five counties after rejecting Democratic calls to establish statewide, universal preschool education. Organizers are seeking up to $5 million in private funds to expand the program.

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