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Enrollment at preschool programs across Northwest Indiana continues to grow as educators and parents focus on the importance of early childhood education.

The Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee released a report last month focusing on the care and education of young children up to age 5. It highlights both Indiana's progress and areas where improvement is needed based on an assessment completed in 2017.

According to ELAC, there now are more high-quality early child care and education programs available, and more children are enrolled in those programs.

But there is room for improvement, the report shows. There are still communities in the state where there are no high-quality early childhood care and education programs.

The tuition cost of high-quality early child care and education programs can be prohibitive for some families, and the available financial assistance for low-income families is insufficient, the report said.

ELAC's report also breaks down the number of children between 0 and 5 who are located in each county and eligible to receive preschool education — 36,224 children in Lake County; 11,150 in Porter County; and 7,867 in LaPorte County.

Kathy Hruby owns My School in Winfield. It serves 94 children from six weeks to 12 years old and is at capacity.

"Sixty of those children are ages 3 to 5 and are in the preschool program," she said. "We are a Level 3 accreditation, and we are education-based with a hands-on approach to education. Children learn by doing."

Level 3 programs are considered high-quality, demonstrating the knowledge and skill necessary for planning appropriate activities and opportunities that lead children toward school readiness, according to the Indiana Family and Social Service Administration.

Level 3 programs also have invested significantly in the professional development of the staff, and they incorporate family and staff input into the program.

Instruction more than just academics

Hruby said teachers are well equipped and most of them have been at the preschool for eight to 15 years. "We provide not just academics, but we also work with our children on a spiritual and emotional side. We deal with the whole child," she said.

Indiana education leader Jennifer McCormick said educators know the skills students learn in school extend beyond academics.

"Even more so at a young age, the classroom teaches children academic skills along with how to socialize, work together, take direction and get along," she said. "Therefore, providing children with a structured educational environment at an early age is a building block for future success."

Candace Ziese, who owns Children First Learning Center Foundation in Crown Point, said her numbers are growing each year. She is licensed to serve 86 children from birth to age 10.

She said youngsters in the preschool program concentrate on learning ABCs, handwriting and phonics, using a creative curriculum.

Jennifer Wright, the CEO of Hilltop Neighborhood House in Valparaiso, said that program targets children from a lower socio-economic group.

"Both parents must be working and/or going to school," she said. "We serve 80 children and another 67 in after-school programs. It's free for children who live in the neighborhood."

Getting youngsters ready for kindergarten

Wright said her program specializes in kindergarten readiness and partners with the Indiana Department of Education on testing measures to make sure children are ready for kindergarten.

"We're in our 24th year, and we've found that parents generally improve their own circumstances because they have good, quality child care and that makes them more stable in their own jobs," she said.

"It's a proven fact that if you live below the poverty line, almost 47 percent to 57 percent of your income goes toward child care. That's more than housing and food, and that's crazy. This program allows children to get a quality education at free or highly reduced rates," she said.

The Duneland YMCA in Chesterton offers a preschool program called the Early Learning Academy. Shannon Spratley is the senior program director and Sally Gabric directs the school-age program. Gabric said they serve 70 3- to 5-year-olds in the preschool program.

"We have a curriculum directed toward kindergarten readiness, and we do three evaluations throughout the year to make sure that kids hit the milestones. Our programs also are affordable," Gabric said.

Hobart Schools Superintendent Peggy Buffington said preschool helps children approach learning in a setting that provides opportunities to increase initiative, curiosity, engagement, persistence, invention and imagination in their work and play.

"The preschools in the School City of Hobart know and approach learning that is related to social, emotional, intellectual, language and physical development," she said.

"We provide extra hands-on learning with high school cadet teachers helping to deliver education programs that take on children’s unique attitudes, habits and learning styles. The important role of preschool is to develop positive attitudes and openness to new tasks and challenges. We want children to have experiences and opportunities that foster the promotion of learning," Buffington said.

Sandi Sweeney, director of Lake Ridge New Tech Schools Head Start, is at capacity with 122 children. Sweeney said they've doubled their enrollment over the last five years.

She said the program now accepts students from Griffith (20 children) and Gary's West Side (30 children). 

Sweeney said the preschool program is grant-based with additional support from the Lake Ridge schools.

"We are part of the project-based learning at the schools and our children learn how to work together early," she said.

"We're also working with kids on how to regulate their emotions. We're using a new program called conscious listening, which teaches kids how to recognize their emotions and their triggers. Kids don't have the vocabulary to express when they are frustrated or scared, and we teach them how not to act out."

On My Way Pre-K continues in Lake County

On My Way Pre-K is the name of Indiana’s first state-funded prekindergarten program, which was approved in 2014 as a five-county pilot by the Indiana General Assembly.

As part of Indiana's On My Way Pre-K program, the state expanded that program to include access to five additional counties, bringing the number to 20.

Lake is the only Northwest Indiana county that offers the On My Way Pre-K program.

For the 2015-16 school year, there were 227 children served in Lake County and 25 approved On My Way Pre-K providers. That was the first full year of the grant program.

For 2017-18 school year, there were 284 children served in Lake County. There are currently 88 approved providers.

Early Learning Indiana continues mission 

Last month, Early Learning Indiana announced it had awarded seven faith-based early education ministries across the state a total of $125,848 to improve their programs' overall quality.

Grant recipients will use the funds for physical, operational and program improvements so they can join and advance along Paths to Quality, the state’s child care quality rating and improvement system. That voluntary, four-tiered system assesses each provider on health and safety standards, its overall learning environment, the use of planned curriculum and national accreditation.

With these funds, all seven programs will join Paths to Quality and reach Level 3, which is considered high-quality. The three local programs receiving Early Learning Indiana grants are:

Cline Avenue Fellowship Childcare, Highland, which was granted $36,633 to install a fire alarm system and hand washing sinks in four classrooms, purchase classroom materials and to cover costs associated with hiring staff.

Immanuel Lutheran Preschool, Valparaiso, which was granted $16,325 to support facility improvements, purchase new classroom materials and cover costs associated with hiring additional staff.

Stepping Up Preschool, Crown Point, which has been awarded $7,640 for facility improvements and classroom materials as well as for costs associated with hiring new staff and ongoing professional development.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.