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Pre-K options concern parents

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Between one- and two-thirds of students starting kindergarten at local schools aren’t ready for class their first day, and to better prepare children school officials want them enrolled in preschool programs.

But currently families have a lack of programs to choose from, especially farther south in the county, and a lack of preschools they can be sure are using state-approved lessons to help children learn, officials said.

Local families have about 50 preschool programs to choose from in Johnson County. But some school districts struggle to give parents recommendations on where their children should go.

For example, school officials at Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson have no preschools they can recommend within their school district, Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said.

In Franklin, Creekside Elementary principal Mark Heiden didn’t know of a local program he could recommend to parents until Johnson County Learning Centers began working with Franklin schools to provide preschool for local students.

Edinburgh is one of the most difficult places to find preschool options. Johnson County Learning Centers partnered with Edinburgh schools to create a preschool program this year. That partnership is ending at the end of the year, and the school district is planning to create their own program, director Dawn Underwood said.

More preschool programs are needed in the southern part of Johnson County to ensure students are prepared when they start kindergarten.

But Child Care Answers director of programing Mindy Bennett also wants to see the quality of Johnson County’s preschool programs improve as well.

Child Care Answers, a childcare resource and referral agency that is funded through the United Way as well as other grants, provides training for preschool programs that includes strengthening classroom lessons, dealing with students’ behavior, student health and safety training.

Whenever Underwood has a parent asking questions about where to send their child to preschool, she sends them to Child Care Answers because they have the most comprehensive information on area preschools, she said.

“They are kind of the keeper of that information,” Underwood said.

Child Care Answers also has a rating and improvement system preschools can choose to be a part of. Of the roughly 50 preschools in Johnson County, 27 are a part of the ranking system, and of those nine are using lessons that are accredited nationally or approved by the Indiana Department of Education.

Bennett wants to see that rate climb, as it will mean more students are being prepared for kindergarten, she said.

“I want to see children prepared for school. It’s what’s developmentally appropriate, it’s engaging and it will prepare our children to be ready for school,” she said.

The 23 preschools not currently using the rating system can still have structured programs. The Johnson County Learning Centers’ Franklin program, for example, uses lessons designed to prepare students for kindergarten, but that program isn’t currently ranked, Underwood said.

Preschools that use the Child Care Answers rating system are ranked on a scale of one to four.

A ranking of one or two means that children are in a safe place during the day, that employees have had their backgrounds checked and are trained in first aid and CPR, and the building meets health and safety regulations. Currently 18 county preschools have been ranked with ones or twos, Bennett said.

But those preschools may not have daily lessons to prepare children for kindergarten, including hands-on experiments such as guessing what will happen when an egg is wrapped in a protective case and then dropped, or using shaving cream to practice writing letters at their desks, Bennett said.

“To the naked eye it appears to be play, but it’s very purposeful play that’s been designed and facilitated by the teacher to ensure they’re learning the skills that they need for school,” she said.

To better improve the preschool programs throughout the county, Bennett would like to see them working closer together to compare which lessons are the most effective at preparing students for kindergarten. Bartholomew County has a similar partnership among its preschool programs, and Underwood is currently trying to organize a similar consortium in Franklin.

“If we could get more participation in (Underwood’s) group, I think that would help improve the care across the board,” Bennett said.

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