None of the 18 preschoolers really knew why there were so many nicely dressed adults visiting their classroom at Seymour-Redding Elementary School on Monday.
But they knew it was important.
One of the visitors, a woman, crouched down and asked the students what they had learned this year and let the class know she was proud of their efforts to be ready for kindergarten in the fall.
She passed out certificates that had each child’s name on it and her signature, and she shook their hands.
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The woman was Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.
Crouch, along with representatives from Early Learning Indiana, spent time at the school touting Jackson County’s success with the state-funded On My Way Pre-K program.
That success is largely why state legislators have agreed to expand the program to more Hoosier counties with a focus on rural communities.
Jackson County was the only rural county of five selected in 2015 to pilot On My Way Pre-K. The program offers state-funded vouchers to qualifying low-income families to send their 4-year-olds to a preschool of their choice.
Providers must be rated at least a Level 3 with the state’s Paths to QUALITY rating system.
Redding is one of several school-based sites in Jackson County accepting On My Way Pre-K vouchers. It offers a full-day program for working parents.
There are a total of 13 providers, including public and parochial schools and day cares, in Seymour, Brownstown, Crothersville and Medora. Currently, there are 95 students attending preschool through On My Way Pre-K vouchers.
Crouch, along with Dr. Ted Maple, CEO of Early Learning Indiana, spoke to a small crowd of educators and community leaders about the importance of quality early childhood education for all children and the future of On My Way Pre-K.
“I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be here and see the results of what we think is important here in Indiana,” Crouch said. “When I look back on my life, outside of my parents, my teachers had the single most influence on me, so all of you in education are guaranteeing the future success of our state and our country.”
Monday’s visit was Crouch’s first for early childhood education since the General Assembly approved the expansion of On My Way Pre-K.
“We have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “It’s because of your collaboration, commitment and vigilance that we are able to realize the success we did and double the amount of students we are going to be able to serve here in Indiana.”
Crouch said both she and Gov. Eric Holcomb are committed to providing early childhood education opportunities to all children in Indiana. She co-authored the 2013 legislation that created the On My Way Pre-K program.
“Because we know and believe that every child, every child, deserves a chance to be successful in life, and sometimes, that takes a little help,” she said. “And we’re here to help.”
But it’s the community leaders, business leaders, parents, educators and children in Jackson County that deserve the most recognition, she said.
“It’s your support in putting such an emphasis and such a premium on early childhood education and by elevating that issue to the forefront and seeing it on to the finish line,” Crouch said. “We could not have been successful without your involvement.”
Crouch, who also serves as secretary of agriculture and rural development, said she was especially proud that Jackson County is the only rural county that participated in the pilot program.
“Because of your success, now in the future expansion, our partners at the Family and Social Services Administration are directed to put an emphasis on primarily rural areas,” she said.
But there is much more work to be done, she said.
“We must continue to challenge ourselves to build a better tomorrow and a future generation,” she said. “And it has to be a tomorrow that provides even more opportunities than we could realize, and it starts with early childhood education.”
Maple spoke on how preschool can benefit children now and in the future.
“We all know that pre-K is incredibly important in the life of a young child,” he said. “We know that young children’s brain is developing at a rapid rate through these early years. We have an important opportunity and obligation to serve these young children well, both at home and in opportunities like pre-K.”
Maple said research shows preschool can help prepare a child for school not just academically but also socially, emotionally and behaviorally.
“We’re excited and thankful to see more pre-K being offered to more families across Indiana, especially in communities that are not just big cities, but in communities like Seymour that are rural areas, where we know 4-year-olds need pre-K just as much as they need it in Indianapolis,” he said.
The results of expanding On My Way Pre-K to more Hoosier communities will be more children prepared for school, more families able to go back to work because of access to pre-K during the workday and stronger families altogether, Maple said.
“Our vision for Hoosier families is truly that every child that wants it has access to high-quality pre-K, and thanks to the actions of leaders in communities like Jackson County, we are making great steps forward,” he said.
Erica Woodward, project manager for On My Way Pre-K in Jackson County, said the program is expanding not just to other counties but also is growing and strengthening in Jackson County.
The program is looking to increase by 25 students this fall.
The demand for the program is high, as the county received applications for more than 130 children in just three months.
“That’s a large number for a small, rural county,” she said. “This tells us that not only is the program wanted, but it is needed, and it is necessary for our families.”
Child Care Network will operate four On My Way Pre-K programs in public schools this fall, including a new class at Brownstown Elementary School. Brownstown Christian Church Preschool has watched its enrollment grow due to On My Way Pre-K, and Zion Lutheran School in Seymour will be changing from its current half-day to a full-day program.
Without On My Way Pre-K, many families in Jackson County would not be able to send their children to preschool, Woodward said.
“And most notably, those children would not have had such a strong academic and social foundation to enter into kindergarten,” she said.