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Preschool pilot makes county a pioneer again


Indiana's path to quality child care started in Allen County; the path to quality preschool starts here, too. As one of five counties selected for the state's preschool pilot program, Allen County is well positioned to set the standard for the state. The framework United Way of Allen County has created in cooperation with a dozen-plus community groups rightly focuses on high-quality early learning for children from low-income homes and avoids the political pitfalls that could put the state's long-overdue program off track.There are pitfalls. One is the view, all too common, that preschool represents government intrusion into parenting. Critics claim the state has no business in raising children. The state, of course, is not the preschool provider. High-quality preschool programs are provided by educators who understand the importance of brain development in early learning and use appropriate lessons in early literacy, math, science and social-emotional learning. Another potential pitfall is that state officials will bow to pressure to chip away or even eliminate the requirements for high-quality programs directed by early childhood professionals. If they do, the initiative is reduced to another low-level child care program – good for untrained child care providers chasing state subsidies; worthless for children who need certified teachers to help prepare them for school. Finally, there's the danger that the same lawmakers who took so long to approve even a modest preschool program won't wait to see its effects and refuse to expand or even continue it. Indiana has been among the 10 or fewer states without state-funded preschool for many years. The low-income families set to benefit have no political clout. Allen County's preschool team is aware of the potential obstacles. John Peirce, United Way's consultant for early-learning initiatives, has been focused on early-learning issues for years. Along with Jeanne Zehr, director of Community Impact for the agency, he already has identified promising partners to participate in the pilot program. Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools are prepared to expand their high-quality programs. Some church-based programs meet the quality standards and could serve more students with the expansion of the Child Care and Development Fund voucher program. “We're ready,” Zehr said Tuesday after learning about the county's selection. “Allen County already had a good network of early-learning professionals – John has been able to get the business community to understand that investing in preschool pays off in the long run. Instead of paying out for remediation and job-training and criminal justice, you start out with kids who love to learn.” The $50,000 commitment from United Way and its Women United program, along with another $50,000 from the PNC Grow Up Great program, represents the important seed money required as a match for the state funds.More money raised locally will allow even more children from poverty to participate in preschool programs that are currently cost-prohibitive for all but middle- and upper-income families. About 1,500 Allen County 4-year-olds are eligible for the program, according to a state estimate. Peirce laments that the program isn't more ambitious. Brain research shows benefits in talking to children from birth; long-range studies show benefits to preschool for 3-year-olds. He also recognizes the need to develop a broader and better-compensated field of early-learning professionals to serve the preschool programs, which must meet the advanced standards of the Paths to Quality rating system.The statewide Paths to Quality, of course, began in Allen County. This also is home to the state's first Healthy Families program, another successful child development program deserving of more state support. If state officials are truly committed to improving educational achievement, in fact, they will follow Allen County's lead in nurturing its youngest learners.