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Verdict is still out on pre-K program
Although popular, Florida's pioneering effort is lacking, its critics say.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 20, 2007
Three pre-kindergarten students participate in classes at Campbell Park Elementary school over the summer. State lawmakers approved legislation in 2004 that provides free pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in the state.
Florida's Voluntary Prekindergarten program is open to all 4-year-olds in Florida. Mandated by voters in 2002, it offers up to 540 hours of early education, with an emphasis on reading readiness, at public and private centers and schools.
All children who are 4 on or before Sept. 1 and who are Florida residents.
Can I still register my child?
Yes, enrollment is open, although providers can determine whether they have space to offer. All you need is proof of residence and proof of your child's date of birth. For more details, contact your local early learning coalition: Pinellas, 727-547-5782; Hillsborough, 813-204-1727; Pasco-Hernando, 1-866-797-9444.
Is it free?
Yes. But if you want child care services before or after the program, a center can charge for that.
Do they test the kids?
Not in the paper-and-pencil way. The children are evaluated as they enter kindergarten, though, to see if they have the skills needed to succeed there. The centers are then rated on how well they prepared the children.
With the start of school, Danny Morris is comforted to know that more kids than ever are ready for the rigors of kindergarten.
Morris had a hand in that. As a child-care provider and as then-president of the Florida Association of Child Care Management, he had the ear of those charged with designing the state's voter-mandated Voluntary Prekindergarten program, or VPK.
Two years into the program, he's pleased with what he sees.
"I see the thing as a big positive," says Morris, who runs Kids at the Point centers in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
In many ways, VPK has proven a huge success. It serves more than half of eligible 4-year-olds in the state, using a growing mix of public, private and faith-based providers.
But at the same time, the program has been criticized for the way providers are evaluated, for the education levels of its teachers, and the amount it spends on each child. A national report on the state of pre-K programs released in the spring called Florida's model "particularly worrisome," in part because it looks to reach so many children without enough money to create high quality.
"Florida still has not implemented the things you need to do to give children a high-quality prekindergarten program," said Steve Barnett, executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
* * *
VPK is the result of a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2002 requiring a voluntary, free pre-K program. It is offered to all Florida children who turn 4 by Sept. 1.
The program, which began in the 2005-06 school year, is delivered by licensed public, private and faith-based child-care providers who meet certain minimum standards.
Enrollment has grown steadily. It served more than 124,000 children during the 2006-07 school year. That's more than half of eligible children.
"Clearly, parents have said, 'Boy, there's something valuable for my child here,' " said David Lawrence, who led the grass roots effort to pass the 2002 amendment. "That's the big plus."
* * *
Few would suggest that the hard work is over. While the 2002 amendment called for a "voluntary, high-quality, free" program for every 4-year-old, critics say VPK has a way to go on the "high-quality" front.
Barnett blasted the state's method of rating providers.
Currently, kindergarten teachers evaluate students before the 30th day of the school year. The information is sent to the state, which tracks the results back to a child's VPK provider. The information is used to calculate each providers "readiness rate."
Critics say the readiness rates do not reflect progress, as the children are not evaluated at the beginning of the pre-K program.
"You can't prove anything with these scores," Barnett said. "That's clearly a fundamental problem."
Some VPK providers also had problems with the readiness rates. They have complained that the system gives more credit to schools that take kids with more life experience than to those that really help the children improve socially and academically.
But Shan Goff, who heads the Department of Education's early education division, said outcomes are the key.
"Absolutely, we want children to make learning gains," Goff said. "But there is a goal." And that goal is being ready for kindergarten.
* * *
There's another goal in the pre-K legislation, but it's only "aspirational." It says that the state hopes to have teachers with bachelor's degrees in early education in pre-K classrooms.
Linda Alexionok, pre-K director for the Children's Campaign, wants to change that to a requirement.
"Until Florida decides to invest in its teachers in pre-K, we can do all we want with assessments and curriculum," and it won't matter much, Alexionok said.
A school without a teacher with a bachelor's degree is like a surgical suite without a trained surgeon, she said.
"One of the biggest 'right' things that happened for pre-K is for Gov. Charlie Crist to say his vision is for every child to have access to a degreed teacher," Alexionok said.
* * *
Other key concerns exist. Some wonder whether the summer program, with its long hours, is working. Others wonder whether VPK is serving the children who need it most. It's hard to tell on the latter, as the state does not collect detailed demographic information about children in the program.
As a result, Alexionok said it would be difficult to figure out what's keeping the most needy children from the program. And Lawrence adds that without such data, no one can evaluate which instructional methods work best for which groups of children.
The Department of Education plans to review the pre-K academic standards during the coming year. Goff said the staff will look at areas to refine, and how to work math and science basic concepts into the system, along with the reading focus.
National advocates will be watching.
"Florida is a leader in this, and we want to know how well that is working," said Barnett.
As far as Morris is concerned, the state always can make something better. But he says the state pre-K system is well on its way.
"The only people that I see complaining are the advocates, who don't have a real stake in it. They don't have a kid in this. They aren't providers," he said. "The people that implemented this program, everyone was at the table. ... That's what makes a successful program."