State of pre-K: A look at Florida's voluntary pre-K system

Erin Kourkounis

Pensacola News Journal

May 6, 2013

This August, about 2,400 Escambia County 4-year-olds will enter a voluntary prekindergarten program.

For three hours a day, five days a week, they will be taught how to tie their shoes, how to tell the difference between letters and numbers, and how to match letters with sounds.

One year later, as 5-year-olds, they will be tested to see whether they gained the skills they need to be successful in kindergarten.

If results are the same as in 2012, about 1,200 of those children, roughly half, will lack at least some of the skills they will need.

From there, these children will embark on a dubious learning path from which many will never recover. Consider the following:

• Despite the constant efforts of educators, Escambia County has been plagued for decades with a grim statistic: Nearly 30 percent of adults are considered to be illiterate.

• At the start of this school year, among the half of Escambia’s kindergarten students deemed not ready, 10 percent displayed a total lack of readiness, such as a failure to recognize basic shapes such as squares and triangles, while 40 percent were “progressing,” but not quite ready.

• After 18 weeks of school last fall, one in five Escambia first-graders was not on course to advance to second grade. In nine schools, mostly located in low-income areas, that number was closer to 30 percent or 40 percent.

• In 2012, 19 percent of all Escambia third-graders were reading below grade level.

• About 20 percent of Escambia students do not graduate from high school.

From President Barack Obama to educators to legislators, there is agreement on the critical need for successful kindergarten-readiness programs. And in Florida, $413 million in state funds, including $5 million in Escambia, is spent to make those programs successful, according to the Office of Early Learning.

The pressures on VPKs are intense.

Early learning expert Craig Jones, an associate professor at the University of West Florida, said more is expected of 4-year-olds today than in the past.

“Pre-K now is a lot like what kindergarten used to be,” he said. “Pre-K is getting kids ready to do things that really aren’t reasonable for 5-year-olds to do.”

Yet a three-month News Journal investigation into Escambia’s voluntary pre-K programs shows a system so fraught with problems that it has virtually no chance of achieving a consistent level of success, let alone breaking a cycle of often-disappointing student achievement.

Finding money

Escambia Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said the VPK program is an important component for a successful education but is “treading water.”

He said the program desperately needs more funding to increase the number of hours 4-year-olds are in class and to improve the quality of instruction.

“One of the big flaws is that we only fund half a day,” he said. “The second issue is standardizing the curriculum we’re teaching. We are just not making progress with the minimum resources we put into it.”

Thomas said parents, especially low-income parents, would benefit from a full day of learning.

“I’m not going to tell you that being poor prevents a child from learning,” he said. “The key is to make sure VPK intervention is long enough to make a difference. For working class parents, that becomes an obstacle.”

However, Gov. Rick Scott said the outcomes of VPK programs need to be better established before more money is doled out.

“Everyone wants more money,” he said. “Let’s figure out outcomes ... then see if we need to fund to a greater extent.”

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, who served as Okaloosa County Schools superintendent from 2000-06, said he gives the VPK system statewide and in Escambia a B- or a C grade. He also noted the wide disparities among the VPKs.

“Based on my own observations, some are very good, some are sort of adequate and some are poor,” he said. “VPK has had some significant successes, but I believe there are uneven aspects to the quality, particularly with regard to school readiness.”

The issues

The VPK program’s lack of consistency is reflected in the 108 Escambia programs operated in a hodgepodge of settings.

Some are in public schools. Some are at private day care centers. Some are at churches.

And their differences don’t stop there.

Some are staffed by teachers with four-year college degrees. But since VPK teachers are not required to be college graduates, let alone have a degree in education, some are staffed by high-school graduates who have taken a three-semester course to earn a child development associate certification.

Nor is there a single curriculum. Rather, each center chooses from several programs approved by the Florida Department of Education.

The upshot is that for the 2011-12 school year, one-third of the county’s VPKs were classified by the state as “low performing,” meaning that less than 70 percent of the kindergarteners who attended the previous year ended up with the requisite skills measured on the readiness tests.

A low-performing center becomes a “provider on probation,” but it is offered four years to raise its score before it is shut down. If it shuts down for a year, or changes its name, it can return the next year and start all over again.

'Better than nothing'

Bruce Watson, director of the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, says that despite these issues, Florida’s VPK program is providing children with educational opportunities and experiences in a classroom setting before they enter kindergarten.

He noted that the 2,400 children who attend VPK fare 10 percent better on state standardized tests as third-graders than their peers who did not attend VPK.

And the number of low-performing centers decreased from 39 two years ago to 25 last year.

“Our VPK program is not well liked,” Watson said. “But statistically, we’re proving it’s better than nothing.”

Watson also said it’s hard to read too much into the designation of a program as low performing.

In Escambia, many of the low-performing centers are in low-income neighborhoods where the teachers encounter a whole host of challenges, including low enrollment, high student turnover and a lack of ability for many of the students to learn at home.

Watson said the providers on probation include some of the “most enthusiastic, diligent providers.”

“It concerns me how the process works,” he said. “About half the providers on my provider-on-probation list are doing as good or better a job than those with a good enough score.”

Lack of funding

Experts, educators and legislators say the crux of the VPK problem is a lack of funding.

In Florida, per-pupil funding for K-12 students is $6,400 a year.

VPK funding per pupil was about $2,300 for the year. That is $4.25 per hour in a 540-hour program.

The Legislature has not shown an inclination to provide additional funding.

The Office of Early Learning estimates that the VPK funding amount for 2013-14 will be about $405 million, $10 million less than this year. The amount is tied to the projected population of 4-year-olds in the state.

In Escambia, Watson expects VPK funding for next school year to decrease slightly.

Florida’s VPK program would be much more effective if funding was doubled, the school day was longer and teachers were required to have four-year degrees, said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

New Jersey, for example, provides more than double the funding per VPK student that Florida does and offers the program for six hours per day.

“The Florida Legislature funded it at a dramatically lower level than they should have,” Barnett said. “If you don’t fix that, you can’t hire good teachers. Even if they have access to VPK, the standards wouldn’t qualify for child care in some states.”

Watson said the largest providers that have the most money typically are the most successful.

“The larger the school, the larger the resources,” he said. “Obviously, if you have the ability to buy a better curriculum and more toys, you can do a better job of teaching them.”

Starting behind

Pre-K is the single most important factor in moving the district forward academically, Thomas said. Yet, he has no official oversight of the VPK program.

This school year, the school district implemented a first-grade retention policy to target reading problems. It also added an extra hour of reading instruction to the school day for six struggling elementary schools.

Consistently, about 15 percent to 20 percent of students begin school more than one year behind, Thomas said.

“In a lot of cases, I have kindergarteners entering as 5 years old and they’re functioning like 3-year-olds,” he said. “They’re a real challenge for kindergarten teachers. These students don’t understand words. They haven’t been talked to.

“The delays start long before they come to school. The real solutions have to occur for children long before they walk into kindergarten the very first day.”