Today’s four-year-olds may be making history with On My Way Pre-K

| March 6, 2015
MLK staff member Miss     Dance reads with student Mohamed.

Martin Luther King Montessori School teacher Bridget Dance reads a book to On My Way Pre-K student Mohamed Wah. Dance is a certified Early Childhood Montessori teacher who is working on her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

By John Pierce
Special to Frost Illustrated

Just as we look upon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as pioneers of the civil rights movement, we may someday look back at children, parents and teachers involved in Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program as pioneers of another important movement. That is the movement to ensure all Hoosier children arrive at kindergarten prepared for success in school. Until now, Indiana has been one of only 10 states that does not offer state-funded pre-k for four-year-olds.

Last year, the state legislature created a small pilot pre-k program in five of Indiana’s 92 counties. Allen County is one of the five. The pilot program is called On My Way Pre-K. About 50 children enrolled in the program in January. Many more are expected to enroll in August for the 2015-16 year. Its purpose is to test whether high quality pre-kindergarten learning is worth the future investment of state tax dollars.

One of the participating programs in Allen County bears the name of Dr. King and of a pioneer in early childhood learning, Maria Montessori. The Martin Luther King Montessori School (MLK) on South Anthony attracted 17 of the 52 children who found a spot in the early January start of the pre-k program.

The story of why a Burmese mother-of-five, Cho Wah, chose the school is the story of many low-income parents seeking the best learning opportunity for their young children.

In December she was driving by MLK when she saw the big “On My Way Pre-K” sign.

“I had received a letter about the program, so I went in, said Mrs. Wah. “I turned in my application to CANI, and just two days later, my son Mohamed started school!”

A new round of family applications is being accepted now at CANI for the next phase of the program that begins in August.

The factors that attracted her to MLK were the quality of the program, the location, and the fact that it is full-day, full-year—and free to qualifying families. Mohamed had been attending a half-day, school-year program.

“I prefer the full-day program, and he likes it, too,” she said. “The MLK location also saves me a lot of time.”

MLK Montessori Executive Director Greta McKinney (left) talks with parent Cho Wah.

Cho Wah, right, is the mother of one of Indiana’s first state-funded pre-kindergarten students. She tells Greta McKinney, director of the Martin Luther King Montessori School, she was thrilled her son found a place in the On My Way Pre-K pilot program.

She has five children and drives them to three different schools.

Now that Mohamed has settled in, Mrs. Wah could not be happier with what he is learning. Her family speaks Burmese at home as well as English, and they read and recite Arabic. At MLK, classes are taught in English, but children also learn Spanish. Mohamed will soon be multi-lingual, not just bilingual. Research shows children’s brains benefit from learning more than one language in early childhood, said MLK Director Greta McKinney.

“I asked my son what they do there, and he said they cut papers,” Wah said.

McKinney explained that learning activities like cutting paper with safety scissors helps Mohamed develop small motor skills and eye-hand coordination. “We show them how to cut from left to right, and that helps them later in learning to read from left to right.”

McKinney invited Wah to visit Mohamed’s classroom any time to observe what they do.

“We ask all of our parents, ‘What can we do to support you in your role as parent?’ I was happy to see that the On My Way Pre-K program includes parent engagement as an important part. We look at it as parent support,” explained McKinney.

When McKinney discovered that Wah and her husband were experienced gardeners, she asked if they would help with gardens the children grow at MLK. The Montessori method emphasizes students learning through direct experience: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and movement. Gardening uses all of these. At first, Wah seemed uncertain she had something to contribute. McKinney quickly explained that MLK values the unique talents parents have to share.

“We want to create a learning community. It starts with building a strong relationship between the child, parents and teacher,” she said.

McKinney said, “The feedback we get from Fort Wayne Community Schools, where many of our children go, is that our children are prepared for success in school when they enter kindergarten. If children are not prepared, they are always playing catch-up, and that’s not good for them or the schools.”

Quality pre-k helps prevent negative consequences
The On My Way Pre-K program was created for children age four from families that are below 127 percent of the federal poverty level. Statistics provided by Ounce of Prevention Fund research show that the achievement gap appears long before children reach kindergarten. It also shows that at-risk children who don’t receive a high-quality early childhood education are:

● 25 percent more likely to drop out of school
● 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent
● 50 percent  more likely to be placed in special education
● 60 percent more likely to never attend college
● 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

The fund’s research indicates that early childhood programs are the most cost-effective way to ensure the healthy development of children in poverty and offer the greatest returns to society.

McKinney, who holds a master’s degree in education, said, “Dr. King and Maria Montessori saw the importance of nurturing our children. These young children are the ones who will become responsible for our community and for leading our country someday. I am glad some of our legislators are beginning to see the importance of investing in high quality learning for our children. The way to show education is a priority is not just through words but by funding it. To keep jobs here in our country, we need to develop our own local talent, not import it or outsource it. Investing in the development of our children from birth on is the most effective way to do that.”

Click here to fill out a family application for On My Way Pre-K (August start)

What legislators say they are looking for in the pilot program is evidence that high quality early learning works for Hoosier children. The United Way of Allen County and PNC Bank believed strongly enough to provide $100,000 in required matching funds to attract state funding. They are now trying to secure more funds so more children can participate. In the end, it will be up to programs and parents in Allen and four other counties to demonstrate that pre-k provides a worthy return on taxpayer investment.

McKinney downplays the role MLK may play in changing Indiana policy toward investing in pre-k. She said she and her staff are motivated by providing excellence in early childhood education, one child at a time. “It’s what we do for all our children, not just for On My Way Pre-K,” she said. If On My Way Pre-K programs like MLK succeed, history may have something different to say about their impact on future generations of Hoosier children.

John Peirce is a consultant for early childhood learning collaborations and leads the On My Way Pre-K program on behalf of United Way of Allen County. He wrote this first in a series of stories or Frost Illustrated.

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