Reaching higher standards for early childhood education

[Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series examining Indiana’s early childhood education options and how they are funded and regulated.]

Classroom tables come up to an average adult’s knees, and miniature chairs are small enough to slide beneath them. Cubbies in the hallway provide a pint-size version of high school lockers for students to store their coats and backpacks. Darrough Chapel Early Learning Center has all the trappings of a “real school,” just scaled down to suit its 3- to 5-year-old Head Start children.

Bona Vista’s Keys for Kids preschool program offers a similar traditional school environment. Compared to home daycares or registered ministry daycares, daycare centers in Indiana have the most state and federal oversight, which often results in a more academic and structured approach to early childhood education.

“It’s a lot of work to maintain because there’s a lot of regulations,” said Rachelle Myers, director of Early Head Start at Bona Vista. “We choose to have a lot of regulations in some ways because that improves our quality.”

Expanding high quality early childhood education options in Indiana has been a topic of debate recently among lawmakers, though a proposal for a preschool voucher system was tabled this session. Indiana is one of 10 states that do not fund preschool, and the need for more early childhood education is obvious. For every 100 children ages 0 to 4 in Howard County, only 24.2 slots were available at licensed daycare homes and centers in 2012, according to the most recent Kids Count data, a project to track the well-being of children run by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Registered ministry child care providers provide more options, but it’s still not enough to serve all young children.

Meanwhile, Head Start, Bona Vista and other local daycare centers are doing their best to maintain high standards of quality and support whole families while educating their children.

“We want to encourage parents as a primary teacher, so we want to support what parents are doing at home,” Myers said. “It’s really important we help children be ready to learn when they go into school.”

In addition to Keys for Kids preschool, which currently enrolls 117 children ages 2 to 6 in half- and full-day general education or special education programs, Bona Vista also offers:

• A federally-funded Early Head Start program that serves 104 children ages birth to 3 from families that qualify.

• Positive Results for Kids outpatient therapy center that offers occupational, speech/language and developmental therapies to 179 children from birth to 18. United Way supports the center, which provides free quarterly developmental screenings for young children in Howard and Miami counties.

• A Child Care Solutions informational and referral service to help parents find child care that works for them and to help providers improve the quality of their operation. The state contracts Bona Vista’s Child Care Solutions to serve 11 counties.

All Bona Vista programs have the highest rating — Level Four — on Paths to Quality, a voluntary quality rating system recognized in Indiana; have a Five Star rating from the Indiana Department for Environmental Management, which recognizes the level of cleanliness and maintenance of the facility; and a gold star from the Child and Adult Care Food Program for the facility’s food service program. Early Head Start is accredited by the National Association for Education of Young Children, and full-day preschool is state licensed.

Bona Vista offers separate classrooms for each age group, a switch made this year in response to what teachers and parents wanted. All classrooms incorporate free time, small group activities, circle time, art and gym in their regular routines. Even snack time in the kindergarten readiness classroom is an opportunity to teach children the basics of classroom routines and social skills.

On day last month, teachers passed out a healthy snack of cucumbers before students enjoyed a graham cracker and Cool Whip sandwich they made as a special Valentine’s Day treat. One boy dropped a cucumber on the floor while trying to simultaneously wear some on his fingers and settle a disagreement with the two girls at his table. A voice cut through the minor disorder that accompanies snack time for 16 4-year-old children – Miss Phyllis.

“You constantly have to remind them. It’s a day-to-day basis of reminding because it’s still not in their minds to stay seated and not shout out,” said Phyllis Smith, an assistant preschool teacher.

The children know to pay attention when Smith asks a question, for the most part abandoning their talking, giggling and squirming to raise their hands and answer. This discipline is part of the preparation for school.

“There’s some really great things that go on in the full-day preschool that don’t go on in a typical daycare center,” said Troy Bowers, community education coordinator for Bona Vista, whose daughter is in one of the younger preschool classes. “[The 4-year-old class] is set up a lot like a kindergarten classroom. It’s designed to make sure these kids transition easily from preschool to kindergarten.”

The local Head Start center, which is housed at the Darrough Chapel Early Learning Center and partners with Kokomo School Corp., also complies with extensive state and federal regulations. The rule of thumb is to follow whatever standards are more rigorous, said director Julie Worland.

“We have to mesh our state licensing with our federal,” she said. “We go with whatever is more strict. We have a lot of accountability. Not only do we have teacher and staff evaluations, we have [learning environment] evaluations. It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

Head Start is a federal program that serves low-income families within 130 percent of the poverty threshold by providing early childhood education at no cost and offering parents a variety of training and educational opportunities. The local organization is at capacity, reaching 380 students in Howard, Miami and Tipton counties. Another 60 eligible low-income children currently are on the waiting list.

The Darrough Chapel Early Learning Center houses 316 students this year with half-day and full-day classes; transportation to the center is provided. The center in Miami County offers one full-day session and two half-day sessions, and the 10 Tipton County families enrolled in Head Start receive home visits from an educator.

“Head Start has a big parental component,” said Worland, who also is president of the board of directors for the Indiana Head Start Association. “It’s comprehensive. We make sure the families set goals and help them meet those goals. And we provide education for the kiddos. The parents are still the child’s first teacher. If we can train and support that parent, that will benefit the child.”

A parent room at Darrough Chapel includes a library, exercise equipment and computers to help parents work toward the goals they set for their family when enrolling in Head Start. Support from 116 community partners allows Head Start to offer more resources to families.

The local Head Start is rated Level Four on Paths to Quality, NAEYC accredited and licensed at the state and federal levels. It also received a Five Star rating from the Indiana Department for Environmental Management.

Children rotate through different centers in their classrooms and share family-style meals in the cafeteria. Teaching children to pass dishes, chew with their mouths closed and engage in conversation over lunch is part of the social skills — as well as academic skills — Head Start tries to impart to students.

Just walking down the hallway is an opportunity to teach skills that will be expected of students once they get to kindergarten. Teachers show children how to stand in a single-file line and keep an appropriate distance from the person in front of them. The hallways at Darrough Chapel Early Learning Center have designated activities in different areas — like hop from one doorway to the next or skip to the cafeteria — as part of an initiative to keep students physically active throughout the day.

Even with eight daycare centers, 22 home daycares and 10 registered ministry daycares in Howard County, a couple of school corporations still see a need for more early childhood education options.

Kokomo Schools fully implemented a preschool program this school year that serves about 200 students, with plans to expand to another site next school year. The corporation shifted federal Title I dollars to fund the program, which includes full-day and half-day options. Kokomo’s preschool is free to most families, with a co-pay required in some cases for families that live outside the attendance area, want to enroll their child in a full-day program or want before- and after-school care.

Taylor Community School Corp. is the only other district in Howard County that offers its own preschool, providing half-day sessions for 4-year-olds in pre-kindergarten and 3-year-olds in preschool. Tiny Titans Preschool and Pre-K, which started in 2003, is housed in the same hallway as kindergarten classes at Taylor Primary School to make for an easier transition when children are ready to start kindergarten.

Class sizes are small, with 30 children enrolled this year and a waiting list started for next year. The cost to parents is between $75 and $125 per month, depending on the schedule they choose.

Education reporter Lauren Fitch can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at or on Twitter @LaurenBFitch.

Fast facts on two local daycare centers

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