Four- and 5-year-olds sit on a rug in Vickie Burns’ classroom at Sprunica Elementary School. They’ve just finished singing a song about the color brown.

“Last time we talked about a color that starts with the letter Y. Do you remember?” art teacher Natalie Van Zuiden asks.

She begins to spell the first few letters.

“Yellow!” one student responds.

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The music begins and the room fills with little voices singing “Y-e-l-l-o-w spells yellow! Y-e-l-l-o-w spells yellow!”

One student yells the lyrics loud enough to upset another sitting nearby.

The teacher helps calm her down and gently tells the other student to be a little quieter.

Then, the students cover their brand-new paint brushes in bright yellow.

Preschool used to be mostly just for families who could afford it as a replacement for day care, said Debbie Harman, director of student learning for Brown County Schools.

“Now we’re really looking at it as no longer a luxury, but really an opportunity that we want all kids to participate in,” she said.

Yet, cost is still a barrier.

All three Brown County elementary schools offer preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds. Special education students can attend preschool and be transported by bus for free.

But for others, it’s $25 per day, and parents or other adults must provide the transportation.

That fee is about the same as day care, and it’s for fewer hours, so parents who work before 8 a.m. or past 3 p.m. may have to pay for before- or after-school care, too.

Head Start, a federally funded program, also operates in Nashville, free to 3- to 5-year-olds from families below the federal poverty level.

Seventeen seats are available and they are some openings currently, said Gloria Quicksell, enrollment cooridinator for the Brown County Head Start program.

There’s an attendance cap based on state licensing and the size of the building, said center manager Aimee Nichalson of Human Resources Inc.

Statewide, several groups under the campaign All IN 4 Pre-K are lobbying the Legislature to provide more funding to allow greater access to preschool for all families.

“The whole goal of that preschool experience was to get your reading skills where they needed to be by the time you’re 9,” Harman said.

“And your chances of getting your reading skills where they need to be by the time you’re 9 are far, far, far greater if you had a preschool experience.”

What’s it worth?

For Kate Golt, preschool offers more than academic lessons for her 4-year-old son at Sprunica.“Of course I can teach Nolan this stuff at home, but the setting he is in and Mrs. (Vickie) Burns, he looks up to Mrs. Burns,” Golt said. “I can tell a difference in him, like his social skills.”

Children who have experienced preschool before they enter kindergarten don’t have to spend weeks “learning how to be a student,” said Superintendent Laura Hammack. “They were learning on the first day of school, and that’s a really powerful piece of this puzzle.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Golt said about preschool. “I just wish it was funded.”

The state-funded On My Way Pre-K program launched in 2014, only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties.

It provides preschool scholarships for 4-year-old children from families who are at or below 127 percent of the poverty level in income.

In order to accept students with scholarships through On My Way, a preschool program must be rated at Level 3 or Level 4 quality by an accrediting organization, like Paths to Quality.

Only one Brown County program — Lori’s Ton O Fun — is rated Level 3 or 4, which means it uses a planned curriculum to guide child development and prepare them for kindergarten, the Paths to Quality website says.

Brown County Schools’ preschool programs are not certified by Paths to Quality.

Legislators haven’t committed to releasing more funding for preschool or expanding the On My Way program. But in case they do, “we want to look into the Paths to Quality certification so we are eligible to apply for as many funding opportunities that pop up. We want to be ready,” Harman said.

In fact, the district has just applied for an approximately $100,000 capacity-building grant through Early Learning Indiana, Harman said Friday.

If all the pieces fall into place, the district would be able to process federal vouchers for families in need of early learning services, she said.

Early Learning Indiana President and CEO Ted Maple visited Sprunica Elementary School Oct. 3 along with representatives from preschool programs in Bartholomew, Brown and Monroe counties to talk with Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, about the importance of preschool.

The National Institute for Early Education Research’s “State of Preschool 2015” report says only 29 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds in 42 states were enrolled in pre-k programs last school year — an all-time high.

Eight states did not fund programs, including Indiana. The report said it did not recognize On My Way because data wasn’t yet available.

States’ funding for preschool rose by 10 percent in 2015, to $4,521 per child, but because that funding is unstable, 13 states reduced enrollment from the previous year, the national report said.

Some states use sales tax and/or lottery revenue to support preschool, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported.

Others are considering using casino revenue, raising taxes on high-income residents, legalizing marijuana or selling “social impact bonds” to investors if preschools can show that early education cuts the need for remediation or special education in later grades, Pew reported.

Some states also use federal money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Title I, Child Care and Development and block grants, according to the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program.

In 2017, Indiana legislators will finalize the state’s budget for the next two years.

On My Way Pre-K costs the state $10 million a year for the five pilot counties, according to a letter from Gov. Mike Pence to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In June, Pence reported that 2,300 low-income children had been served.

“I promised we would not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working,” Pence wrote.

Koch told the group at Sprunica that state legislators need to see data-driven results, like ISTEP scores.

Brown County doesn’t have those results yet.

Kindergarten students who have disabilities or received preschool scholarships from the Brown County Community Foundation will take the ISTAR state assessment at the end of this year, Harman said.

In Bartholomew County, students who did receive a preschool education are outscoring their peers who did not attend preschool on state assessments like ISTEP and IREAD, said Shane Yates, director of preschool programming for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

On last year’s English-Language Arts portion of ISTEP, Bartholomew County special education students who received a preschool education scored 20 percent higher than their peers who did not attend pre-k, he said.

Expanding access

Of the 59 kindergarten students enrolled at Sprunica this year, 39 attended preschool there.Principal Abbie Oliver said there’s a “huge difference” in those 39.

“Our kids are reading in kindergarten. This is good, positive, cooperative play. We’re not pushing it. We’re not making pre-k (like) kindergarten. We’re making it preschool,” she said.

“But I can’t express enough how important it is for all. In a rural setting like ours, we don’t have day care choices. Kids are left with different people, and this is a great, high-quality place for kids to come to get a good start in life.”

In 2013, Brown County Schools began offering preschool to all students. Before that, the district offered preschool for free to special education students only at the now-closed Nashville Elementary until a Helmsburg class also was added in 2012.

Private preschools were and still are options, and so is Head Start as seats are available.

District officials don’t know how many preschool-age students live in Brown County who aren’t attending preschool. Harman said they’ve tried researching various state databases, but because there’s no hospital in the county where births are recorded, and families are so mobile, they don’t have a solid count.

As a result of that unknown variable and others, like classroom construction costs, Harman said it’s tough to estimate how much it would cost the district to get every preschool-aged student into a classroom.

Brown County Schools now has five preschool classes — one at Helmsburg Elementary School and two at Sprunica and Van Buren elementary schools — for a total of about 120 preschoolers enrolled, ages 3 to 5.

They can attend full days, half days or a combination throughout the week.

For the past two years, the Brown County Community Foundation has provided 21 preschool scholarships for students who are on free or reduced lunch. Older students are picked first.

This year, demand was double that. Forty-two applications were received, and half of those children were put on a waiting list.

Harman and Director of Student Services Al Kosinski said they don’t have data on whether parents of students who were wait-listed were able to find a way to pay for preschool, whether they enrolled in another preschool program, or if they are not receiving any preschool education.

Brown County Community Foundation CEO Larry Pejeau said the foundation is glad to be providing scholarships, “but we feel like we’re leaving 21 behind.”

This year, Nolan Golt was wait-listed.

Kate Golt, a single parent, is still finding a way to pay the $75-per-week fee for three full-day sessions. She pays for one, while her mother and sister cover the other two.

“It’s just me and him. He needs that interaction with other children,” she said. “He’s smart, he’s a sponge and he learns everything,” she said.

A community foundation preschool scholarship covers four half-day sessions per week plus lunch, or two full-day sessions plus lunch and a $10 weekly gas card. The cost of one scholarship is about $60 per week, per child.

The largest expense the school district has is the salaries of the five preschool teachers and six paraprofessionals. District Treasurer Susie Owens said it costs $426,829.68 to operate the five preschool classes the district has, not including supplies or equipment.

The district does receive reimbursements from the state for special education preschool students, as well as a $15,000 federal grant for preschool, but that doesn’t cover all the costs, and neither do the fees charged to parents, Kosinski and Harman said.

He estimated that as many as half of preschool students have individualized education programs, or IEPs, which describe the accommodations and special services they need.

If a student on a scholarship ends up needing an IEP, that opens their scholarship for another student, because IEP students do not pay out-of-pocket for preschool, Kosinski said.

Golt doesn’t think most people are aware that preschool is not funded and not everyone has equal access to it.

“What it does for kids is it puts a mark on them, like, ‘Oh you’re lower class.’ It puts a mark on them when they’re young.

“When it’s public school, it should be funded,” she said.

Funding for the future

Pejeau said the foundation is looking for private funding to assist with getting more students into preschool classrooms.In 2015 and 2016, the foundation gave 21 preschool scholarships for Brown County Schools, at a cost of about $48,000 each year, through discretionary grant dollars, Pejeau said.

The foundation has not committed to funding scholarships in 2017.

“We do believe in the value of pre-k and are advocating for state funding for this important educational program,” Pejeau said in an email.

In Bartholomew County, the school corporation has spent more than $2 million over the past six years to fund preschool, and its funds are “exhausted,” Yates said.

“We are able to meet the needs of 350 (preschoolers) in our community, but due to lack of funding, we know there are hundreds in our community that we’re not reaching.”

The corporation’s target population is children in poverty, Yates said.

“I feel like some students are unfortunately mislabeled as special needs that come from poverty just because they don’t have the foundation that students from better income families would have,” he said.

Koch questioned the preschool advocates at Sprunica about the view that any advantage students receive in preschool “levels out” around third grade.

Yates disagreed. “My personal opinion, with 10 years in the classroom, is that the gaps get harder to close as they get older,” Yates said.

“If can give them that solid foundation at 4 and then build on that, I don’t know if I would necessarily agree with that research,” he said.

Large studies, such as the Perry Preschool Project started in the 1960s, found that attending preschool helps low-income children achieve higher graduation rates, as well as higher incomes and less likelihood of criminal activity.

“Even if the academics level out at some point, I feel like for them to play and have some emotional support, it’s much more than the academic piece,” Oliver said.

Markers of a high-quality preschool program

• Children follow individual developmental patterns, which may vary greatly from child to child.

• Children feel safe and secure in their environment.

• Children have activities and materials that offer just enough of a challenge that they are neither boring nor frustrating.

• Children can connect what they learn with past experiences and current interests.

• Children have opportunities to explore and play.

• Teachers nurture children’s language in English and in their home languages. They talk, listen and provide opportunities for children to share ideas and feelings.

• Teachers read to children every day, individually, in small groups and as a whole class.

• Teachers help children get the most out of every learning situation. They make comments, ask questions and add new challenges as children are ready.

Source: National Association for the Education of Young Children

Nationwide: Enrollment in accredited preschool programs

1. Massachusetts, 47,958 children

2. California, 40,216

3. Illinois, 29,339

4. Connecticut, 25,600

5. Texas, 23,992

6. Pennsylvania, 23,506

7. Florida, 22,651

8. Georgia, 21,579

9. Minnesota, 21,169

10. New Jersey, 19,222

11. New York, 16,754

12. Virginia, 12,808

13. Indiana, 12,052

14. Ohio, 10,505

15. Michigan, 9,536

Source: National Association for the Education of Young Children accredited program search