Hoosier kids could attend pre-K for free under pilot program


Children from poor families in Indiana could soon have the opportunity to attend preschool for free.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law last week a pilot pre-K program that will allow families that earn 127 percent of the federal poverty level -- $28,380 for a family of four -- the opportunity to send their little ones to pre-K with state money.

The state's Family and Social Service Administration will choose five counties to take part in the program.

Four-year-old Jayelin and his mom, Arnita Johnson, are hoping St. Joseph County gets picked for the pilot.

Right now Jayelin attends a Special Needs and Abilities preschool program three days a week at Madison Elementary in South Bend.

But because he has autism, his mom is hoping he can qualify to go to a private pre-K.

"He's extremely hyper and he requires a large amount of attention," Johnson said.

She said Jayelin is extremely bright, but more attention from a private preschool might help him get used to the classroom setting more quickly.

"Eventually he's going to go out to elementary school, middle school, high school, and he's going to have to deal with other people," she said.

Right now, Head Start is the only government-funded preschool program in our area.

There, the kids get breakfast, a little dental hygiene, and hopefully learn enough to transition to kindergarten.

Every single student at Head Start comes from a family earning less than $24,000 for a family of four. But the program can only hold 1,020 kids -- that's only one-third of the number of children who qualify to attend Head Start in St. Joseph and Elkhart Counties based on their families' incomes.

That's why the program's director Kathy Guajardo said she supports the pilot pre-K system, and why she's hoping local counties get to try it out.

"We're thrilled about this, and especially Elkhart and St. Joe, because we have the need here," Guajardo said. "Our wait list annually comes to about 725 children waiting to get in."

If those counties do get chosen, that means Jayelin could be going to a private preschool by August.

State lawmakers said they do expect to start the pilot program this fall.

Before Gov. Pence signed it into law, Indiana was one of only nine state without a state-funded preschool program.