FRANKLIN, Ind. — In Franklin, half of the kindergartners can't count or identify the alphabet on their first day.

Kindergarten teachers see it immediately. Some students can race through the alphabet and read. Others don't know how to write their names or count.

The widening disparity between kindergartners ready for school and those who are not has implications well beyond first or second grade and the classroom, educators said. Once behind, it's hard to catch up.

Moreover, the stakes are getting higher as state education standards say kindergartners should know how to use capitalized letters and write short paragraphs.

A local education group is out to stop and reverse the growing gap by working to get more area children enrolled in preschool.

Johnson County Learning Centers is reaching out to area schools in an effort to establish more preschool classes.

The nonprofit groups has established two preschools, plans to begin one at Edinburgh schools in the fall and is expected to get the go ahead to begin preschool programs at Franklin schools.

The group is asking Franklin school officials to use space at Webb Elementary School to offer early childhood education programs.

One of the classes will be a full-day classroom open to students from around Johnson County, while the second will focus on Franklin students from low-income homes. Both of them will teach 3- to 5-year-olds lessons they'll need to know to become strong readers, and eventually strong students, Johnson County Learning Centers board president Jann Johnson said.

Franklin Superintendent David Clendening said he plans to recommend the board accept the proposal next month.

And while issues such as transportation and notifying low-income families about the program need to be addressed, board member William Maschmeyer said he expects the board will approve the recommendation.

"Anything we can do to improve the readiness of students entering kindergarten should help us all the way through the school district, including graduation rates," Maschmeyer said.

The standards for kindergarten have been rising, and if students are unprepared for what's expected of them by the time they start it becomes very difficult for them to catch up, educators said.

Students from low-income families also are typically further behind than middle class families in essential reading skills. A 3-year-old from a low-income family typically has a vocabulary of 3,000 words, while a middle-class 3-year-old knows about 6,000 words, Clendening has said.

The goal of offering the classes is to give parents, regardless of their income, the chance to offer preschool for their children. About 85 percent of a child's potential for learning is determined before they're 5 years old, and the earlier that child starts learning the basics of reading, the better, Johnson said.

Beyond that, Johnson has cited statistics that shows every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten education saves taxpayers money in the long run. Return on investment includes increased graduation rates, job skills, home ownership and decreased crime, welfare and other taxpayer costs.

Franklin director of curriculum Deb Brown-Nally is hopeful that, if approved, the preschool classes will mean more kindergartners will arrive on their first day ready to read.

"We hopefully get better prepared kindergartners who have richer experiences," she said.

And that will eventually mean stronger high school graduates with better chances of finding jobs, Johnson said.

The full-day class at Franklin would be open to 20 students from anywhere within Johnson County, and parents would pay $130 per week. That tuition money would also help fund the half-day class at Webb, which would be open exclusively to 40 low-income Franklin students.

Full enrollment would amount to about 15 percent of Franklin's total kindergarten enrollment.

Johnson already has reached an agreement with Edinburgh Community Schools. Johnson County Learning Cetners will offer half-day preschool for about 40 students from low-income families, about 53 percent of next year's kindergartners.

That preschool, located at East Side Elementary, will be fully funded by federal money the district receives to support low-income students, meaning eligible parents can send their students free-of-charge, East Side principal Brooke Phillips said.

The curriculum will emphasize reading, science, music art and foreign language.

Though it will be managed and staffed by Johnson County Learning Community, it will be overseen by Phillips.

"One of the biggest things we have no control over is where our students are academically when they walk into our school," Phillips said. "If we can get them in the door sooner, they'll be better prepared for kindergarten."

The learning centers may eventually reach out to other county districts, but first they need to see how well they Franklin and Edinburgh programs work, Johnson said.

"This is kind of a pilot, if we can make it work. If we can get enough community support to sustain it will be a big issue," she said.

Johnson reached out to Franklin with the idea of setting up a preschool in October. She chose Franklin partly because the group Franklin READS, whose members include Clendening, planned to focus on the importance of preschool and reading to children at early ages.

The learning centers have two preschools in Johnson County which opened within the past 2½ years. They offer a full- and a half-day program at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin and a program at the Greenwood Public Library for Punjabi Indian families.

The preschool programs, designed for children ages 3 to 5, have Montessori-style lessons, meaning students choose with teachers' guidance the activities and pace for their learning. Reading is a key part of the program, and students learn the alphabet and numerals but also spend time on life skills such as typing their shoes and learning their phone numbers, Early Learning Community director Dawn Underwood said.

The learning centers' preschool program was originally founded with money from the $1.2 million Community Alliances to promote Education grant, which was given by Franklin College and the Lilly Endowment in 2005. The learning center's current preschool programs charge $540 per month for full-day students, and between $80 and $110 per month for half-day students.

The Edinburgh classroom will cost about $80,000 to run for one year, and the two Franklin classrooms would cost about $100,000. Franklin schools won't have to cover the cost, which will be made up through tuition, grants and community support, Johnson said.

If more than 20 students are enrolled in Franklin's full-day program and more than 40 students are enrolled in Franklin and Edinburgh's half-day programs, the school will give first priority to students closer to starting kindergarten. Students who may have greater academic needs will be the next set considered, Johnson said.

Information from: Daily Journal, http://www.thejournalnet.com