Push on in Collier, state to strengthen pre-K programs for 4-year-olds

Heather Carney

Naples Daily News

Nov 14, 2011

NAPLES — If it were a business decision, early education would yield a high return on the investment.

But it isn't a business decision. It is public education and it yields far more than a monetary return.

"How's that budget going to be spent — on roads, prisons, baseball stadiums or children?" asked David Lawrence, president of the Children's Movement of Florida. "It's all a matter of priorities."

In 2002, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment to give every 4-year-old the opportunity for free, voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK). The law went into effect for the 2005-06 school year.

A recent White House newsletter says that research shows high-quality early learning programs improve children's health, development, cognitive ability, and even their chances of graduating from high school and college.

Experts and advocates of early childhood education repeatedly say that kindergarten is too late. Without support during early years, a child is more likely to drop out of school, depend on welfare benefits and even commit a crime.

It's difficult to find an education expert who disagrees with the investment of early childhood education — even legislators.

Florida and the nation are making it more of a priority than ever. Less than a month ago, the state Board of Education revised the voluntary pre-kindergarten standards to ensure a high-quality early learning opportunity for all 4-year-olds to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. The U.S. Department of Education also announced its first-ever Office for Early Learning.

Early childhood advocates say it is a start, but not enough to ensure a high-quality early education program.

At a local level, Collier County schools Superintendent Kamela Patton recognizes this dilemma. She has made an informal proposal to have VPK in all elementary schools.

"We're always playing catch-up," Patton said. "Ideally, I would have a plan starting from birth."

Now, the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida oversees 269 contracted VPK providers in a five-county area including Collier. In Collier, there are 80 VPK providers serving 1,643 students. In Lee, there are 171 VPK providers serving 4,967 children age 4.

Thirty percent of entering kindergarten students are behind their peers on the first day — only 70 percent of all 4-year-olds are enrolled in VPK.

Of those 70 percent, Lawrence said, many students may not be in a high-quality program.

Supporters of early childhood education are asking for more high-quality VPK programs, more financial support per student, and more standard assessments to evaluate student growth.

"The fact of the matter is, it's nowhere near the quality it should be," Lawrence said of Florida's VPK.

The amount of money per student has dropped from $2,500 when VPK was first implemented in 2005-06 to $2,383, the quality of instruction and ability to assess student growth is lacking, and all the while, Florida students and students across the nation are academically falling behind students from countries like Finland, China and Canada, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The state pays for each 4-year-old to have a half-day program, or 540 hours of early education instruction for the school year. Parents also have the option of sending their child to a 300-hour summer VPK program. Teachers are required to have a minimum of a Child Development Associate or equivalent credential. Summer teachers are required to have at least a bachelor's degree.

Christina Hoefert is the VPK teacher at Child's Path Preschool on Santa Barbara Boulevard in Golden Gate. She completed her Child Development Associate certification at Lorenzo Walker Technical Institute in East Naples.

She explained that when students leave for kindergarten, they are expected to have an understanding of the alphabet, numbers, and of how to play together and share. She said a majority of the day, students get to have "free choice play" where students choose between a kitchen center, block center, art center, sand area and more.

It may not sound like learning, but Hoefert said students learn through play.

"They learn to make their own decisions, to communicate with each other and to create things on their own," she said.

Translated into the new Department of Education standards, this means students are learning to be creative, plan, have self-regulation, solve social problems, listen to each other, investigate and more.

"They learn so quickly at such a young age," Hoefert said. "It's a window of opportunity."

Hoefert also pinpointed a problem that Lawrence and other early childhood advocates have expressed — the problem of uninvolved parents.

"When parents are invested, the students succeed more," Hoefert said.

Kathleen Reynolds, executive director for the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, said that if there is one thing she's learned, it's that if a parent isn't getting child care, then that parent can't work. "It puts parents up against a wall," she said.

In Collier County and Lee County, the VPK program is often merged with the federally funded Head Start program. This gives 4-year-olds access to VPK in addition to all day care. Child's Path Preschool follows this model.

"Most of the students need wrap-around care," Hoefert said.

Jeanne LaFountain, the VPK coordinator for Lee County schools, said that children can begin falling behind as early as 9 months old.

"It is imperative that programs be offered to ensure that children with risk factors ... be served in high-quality, early-care and education programs," she said.

She explained that high-quality early childhood education results in higher test scores, better social skills, less grade repetition, increased earnings, less crime and less teen pregnancy.Lawrence would argue that Florida may have an all-inclusive program, but it doesn't offer a high-quality program.

No one in Collier or Lee counties can answer whether the programs are truly highly effective. Hoefert said she is observed by the Early Learning Coalition and by the Department of Education, but there is no data except for "word-of-mouth" to measure the academic success of her students later in life.

"Teachers across the state can tell us immediately if students have been in VPK or not," said Reynolds of the Early Learning Coalition, but there is no hard data corroborating this.

The Collier County school system doesn't track the correlation between students who participated in VPK and their FCAT scores/academic success vs. those who didn't participate in VPK.

Lawrence wants the state to mandate a pre- and post- assessment to determine student growth in VPK programs.

"I don't take away for a moment that people love children, including legislators," he said, "but we have to invest in children in such a way that they will have a significantly better education."

Patton is on her way to making that happen with her vision for early education programs in public schools. Hindering that vision are money, space and more state support but the idea is there.

"There are still so many kids that don't get that education," she said. "It's something that has been one of my goals since I got here."