Voices of Florida. Made possible through the generous support of the Gidel Family Foundation.

Danyiel Louis: A Simple Equation for VPK

Perhaps Florida’s legislators need to go back to preschool. Then maybe they could figure out what Danyiel Louis sees as a very simple equation for the state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergaten program.

“Invest now,” she says, “or invest later.” It’s not exactly higher math, she says.

A parent of two boys and the director of a preschool that participates in Florida’s state-funded VPK program, Louis is amazed that the initiative faces cutbacks by state officials each year, when what it really needs is more support.

“Every year we have to fight. Every year they want to cut it,” she says. “They do not seem committed to it. If there are not enough people who protest, they cut it.”

Danyiel Louis and her husband Dominique gave up jobs as software engineers to open Green Children’s House in Pompano Beach in 2008 after their son became sick in daycare and spent three weeks in intensive care unit with an empyema, an infection in his lung.

They knew there was a way to provide a healthier preschool environment, and they sank their life savings, and then some, to create a “green” facility that has won Emerald Award for innovative practices from Broward County’s Environmental Protection Department.

But they also knew that was only part of the solution. They wanted a program that provided a stimulating, enriching environment for children – not only because their own two boys would be attending, but because that’s what all children should get in preschool. So Green Children’s House, a Montessori program, goes above and beyond what the state’s VPK guidelines demand by requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and by incorporating math, science, computers and environmental education in the curriculum.

The only problem is, quality costs money. So when they started accepting the state’s VPK stipend for students — the program is voluntary on the part of providers as well as parents — they found themselves in the red.

“We actually lost money,” Danyiel Louis says, explaining that the state funds only three hours a day for a full-year program for 4-year-olds. They didn’t want to give up on the program, which helped make pre-K affordable for the families of their students, so they came up with an alternate program of six hours of instruction, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., for half the year. Families that want to continue have to pay the full tuition for the second half of the year. A summer program is also available.

“We had to figure out a way to make it work for us,” Louis says, adding the change also made more sense academically. “Three hours, from 9-12, is not realistic. It’s not enough time.”

The Children’s Movement of Florida is advocating an expansion and improvement of the state’s program, which already is making an impact. A study by the Florida Department of Education found that children who participated in VPK were not only better prepared for Kindergarten; three years later, they performed better on the FCAT than their peers who did not attend VPK. But Florida can do even better, and owes it to the next generation.

“Learning occurs — or does not occur — way before a child enters a formal classroom,” Children’s Movement founder David Lawrence Jr. reminded a panel of state senators recently.

It will be hard to make significant strides in the program without stronger state support, Louis says. Higher teacher standards would ensure that children are getting the best possible start. The program also should have a more generous allocation for tuition, at least enough to cover four hours daily, she says. Plus more money is needed for classroom supplies and materials, she says.

“A lot of schools that have great programs don’t participate in VPK because they would lose money, like we did,” she says. “If we were to get a funding increase, you would get more high quality programs participating. People would have a lot more options.”

It’s an investment in the future of Florida, she says. It’s sad to think the state can figure out how many prison beds it will need in the future simply by extrapolating from the number of children who are not reading at grade level by third grade today.

“It’s critical that it be funded better,” she says. “We are trying to raise the bar.”

She’s not so worried about her own school. She and her husband are committed to providing a quality program, and they will find a way to do so regardless. But all of Florida’s children deserve the chance to attend a preschool that helps them reach their best potential.

“We are making a positive impact, and we know there is a purpose here. We love it. It’s fun; it’s rewarding. That’s why we do it,” she says. But, she adds wryly, “It’s definitely not for the money.”

KiKi Bochi is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of Broward Family Life magazine. She wrote this piece for the Children’s Movement of Florida.