44% of eligible children in Pre-K

Published October 13, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Forty-four percent of all eligible 4-year-old children in Florida have been enrolled in the state's voluntary prekindergarten program, now in its second year, state officials said Thursday.

Two months into the current school year, 97,000 children are in the program administered by the Agency for Workforce Innovation. That's more than the entire past school year, August 2005 through June 2006, when 96,295 children participated, agency spokesman Warren May said.

"We are very encouraged by the tremendous increase in enrollment," Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said in a statement.

Children can be enrolled in the program at any time, although classes already have started. Officials are expecting the number to climb to 100,000 before January, the next heavy enrollment period. Another boost is expected for the 2007 summer program.

Children who were 4 on or before this past Sept. 1 are eligible.

Florida's participation rate last year was among the highest in the nation among states with such programs, according to a March report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Preliminary figures then showed 42 percent of Florida's 4-year-olds enrolled, compared with 17 percent nationally.

Florida's program was too new then to be included in the institute's national rankings, but preliminary data showed Florida failed to meet benchmarks for teacher and staff degree and training requirements, health screening, referral and support services, meals and monitoring.

It did, though, meet benchmarks for having comprehensive early learning standards, class sizes of 20 or fewer and a staff-to-child ratio of better than one to 10.

Voters required the state to create the program through a citizen initiative in 2002.