- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

MERRILLVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Katrina McFerrin is pleased to see Lake County is one of five counties in the state selected to operate a preschool education program.

McFerrin, 31, of Gary, has four children, one of whom is 3, and she’d love to get him into preschool. She works with the youngster, Eion Westbrook, at home on his alphabet and numbers but believes he could benefit from a structured program.

Eion will be 4 next June and could qualify to take the class in summer. McFerrin said he can identify some numbers and letters and she thinks preschool does a great job of teaching children the basics so they are ready for kindergarten.

“I’m very interested in this program,” she told The Times (https://bit.ly/1yvC71D ).

Eion could be one of 400 preschool children from low-income families in Lake County who will benefit from a one-year pilot program beginning in January.

Lake County was one of five counties in the state selected for the pilot program. Under the plan, parents meeting income guidelines will receive state grants of up to $6,600 to pay for their 4-year-old child to attend a public, private or religious prekindergarten program meeting state quality standards.

The program is being operated by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. The Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly set aside approximately $10 million to fund the preschool pilot program. It is not clear yet how much each county will receive.

Melanie Brizzi, director of FSSA’s Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning, said the five counties and officials from the state held a conference call Aug. 12.

“We did not give the counties budget-allocation numbers yet,” she said. “We are continuing our conversation with the pilot counties to determine accurate measures of capacity.”

Brizzi said Geminus will handle the enrollment process.

Representatives from the five counties selected will meet again Sept. 24 to begin planning for implementation, said Lou Ann Baker, spokeswoman for the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

Highland schools Superintendent Brian Smith said his administration was happy Lake County was one of five chosen for the preschool pilot.

“We would love to be involved and have a preschool program here,” he said.

Gary Attorney Tony Walker, a member of the State Board of Education, is excited about the preschool pilot in Lake County but said the group will have to raise a significant amount of money to meet its match for the grant.

Walker said nothing is going to have a greater impact than preschool education.

“Kids in impoverished areas don’t get the opportunity to go to preschool and they have the most need for early education,” he said. “For the governor to say that we need to commit state funds to make sure that poor kids have a chance for prekindergarten education is one of the biggest education initiatives in the last hundred years. … It will affect a lot of kids who otherwise wouldn’t get this kind of head start.”

Dennis Rittenmeyer, executive director of One Region, the organization that submitted the grant, said it identified about 2,000 underserved children in Lake County who could be eligible for the preschool grant. One Region worked with several other organizations to develop the application, including Lake Area United Way, Geminus Corp. and Purdue University Calumet.

Kim Olesker, regional director for the Lake Area United Way Success by 6 program, said some schools may be ready to go in terms of serving preschool children and others may need to do major capital improvement, including getting preschool playground equipment for small children.

“When you talk about capacity building and bringing in programs for an additional 400 children, you can’t just throw them into the public schools,” she said.

Jeremy Miller, chief operating officer of Lake Area United Way, said the organizations will play no role in choosing the children.

“This is a state-run voucher system. The state will tell us who the families are. We don’t have any say as to where they go. The families get to choose which preschool they want to enroll their youngster in,” he said.

Olesker said the group will have to work through the kinks.

“We’d love to find spots for all 2,000 children we identified when working on the grant application. It’s a program that is in favor of families,” she said.

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Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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