Low-income 4-year-olds in the South Bend, Lafayette, Bloomington, and Terre Haute areas will be among those newly eligible for the state's pre-kindergarten pilot program after Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday announced its expansion to 15 more counties.
The new counties added Wednesday to the On My Way Pre-K program are St. Joseph (South Bend), Tippecanoe (Lafayette), Monroe (Bloomington), Vigo (Terre Haute), Bartholomew (Columbus), DeKalb (Auburn), Delaware (Muncie), Elkhart (Elkhart), Floyd (New Albany), Grant (Marion), Harrison (Corydon), Howard (Kokomo), Kosciusko (Warsaw), Madison (Anderson) and Marshall (Plymouth).
Participating local providers in those counties will be expected to enroll children for the 2018-19 school year, with the possibility of a limited program beginning next January, Holcomb's office said in a news release.
Expanding the program was one of Holcomb's top legislative priorities this year. The measure passed in April expands the original five-county program and increases spending by $9 million. The new counties will join Marion (Indianapolis), Allen (Fort Wayne), Lake (Gary), Vanderburgh (Evansville) and Jackson (Seymour) counties in the two-year-old pilot program.
"Eligible Hoosier children who start at the back of the line now have an opportunity to move ahead when enrolled in a high-quality pre-kindergarten program," Holcomb said in a statement. "A strategic investment now to expand state-funded prekindergarten for children from low-income families is an essential investment we must make in Indiana's workforce and our state's future."
The pre-K expansion also was a top priority of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
"It's simply a good long-term step toward resolving the skills gap in the workforce," Chamber President Kevin Brinegar said.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which is managing the pilot, has seen children in the program make higher gains than their peers in "important aspects of school readiness such as language comprehension, early literacy, executive functioning and a reduction in behavior problems in the classroom," agency Secretary Jennifer Walthall said.
The agency hopes the expansion will increase the number of children in the program from about 2,400 this past year to about 4,000, Walthall said.
The counties were selected from criteria including readiness to implement the program and the number of potentially eligible children. The 15 counties were among 20 applicants.