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A recent change in state eligibility rules for a free preschool program for low income children will benefit a broader range of families, according to local officials.

Previous laws limited eligibility for the state-funded Early Childhood Education Assistance Program (ECEAP) to families that made up to 110% of the poverty line, or about $28,000 for a family of four. Now the preschool can enroll families who make 130% to 200% of the poverty line — about $33,500 to $51,500 for a family of four — depending on the space available in a classroom.

“The number of slots we have funded for children remains the same, but we will be able to serve a broader range of families,” said Mindy Leasure, director for the local ECEAP branch run out of Lower Columbia College.

ECEAP is required to serve students with the “greatest need” first, so enrollment is based on a tiered system, Leasure said. Families who make 110% of the poverty line have priority, followed by families with one or more risk factors such as homelessness, living in a single-parent household, special education needs or low parent-education attainment.

The new eligibility rules added two additional tiers for families with 110% to 130% of the poverty line and families who make 130% to 200% of the poverty line and have additional risk factors, respectively.

“If families are wondering about their eligibility, we just want them to apply so we can help walk them through that process,” Leasure said, noting that a family cannot be accepted into the program if they don’t apply, even if they meet the eligibility criteria. “It’s free preschool services, and there is a lot of value in that for families. We don’t want families who think they might not be eligible to be missing out.”

The changes were spurred in part by at statewide increase to minimum wage, Leasure said. The boost to income bumped some families out of the ECEAP eligibility range.

Though they were making more at work, their increased income might not have been enough to cover the cost of childcare, Leasure said, so ECEAP officials advocated for a bill to widen eligibility range during the legislative session this year.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed that bill into law on May 21.

With the new eligibility rules, ECEAP can “recapture families that had been in our program before,” Leasure said, as well as work with new families who can also benefit from free preschool classes.

“We really want families to know that we have more options available for them. If they’ve tried enrolling in the past and were not eligible, they should try again now that (the bill) expanded enrollment categories,” she said.

Enrollment for ECEAP classes is now open, and families can apply online at www.lowercolumbia.edu/head-start. Applications are also available in person at the ECEAP office on the LCC campus (1720 20th Ave.) or by phone at 360-442-2800.

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