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Duval Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Scores Show Promise For Future

Rhema Thompson

In the Hands On Children’s Museum, about 10 little firefighters in bright pink shirts are busy at work, sliding down fire poles and rolling firetrucks under tables of puzzles, barely minding the reporter in their midst.A friendly five-year-old by the name of London Washington stops long enough to share a new song she recently learned from a book on cats.

She takes a breath, counts to three and croons a short but sweet ditty about “tails and whiskers.”

But it’s not long before she’s off again to explore something new in the giant playroom. This field trip is part of her experience in Duval Schools’ summer Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program, or VPK.

Standing nearby is London’s teacher, Kimberly Flower.

“We just finished up a unit on community helpers so we just did the firemen," she explains. "The fire station that they just played with helped them make that connection, and also, we did foods and there was a restaurant here where we connected our healthy choices to a restaurant."

Early childhood experts have a name for these kinds of hands on activities: Participatory learning.

“Young children are built to move so they need to be able to go outside. They need to be up and moving, doing songs,” said Katrina Hall, an associate professor of literacy and childhood literacy at the University of North Florida.

Hall has been researching literacy in young children at UNF for the past ten years. It’s through the kind of play taking place at the children’s museum that preschoolers build up the vocabulary skills that will help them in grade school, she said.

“We know that their early learning experiences both at home and in a childcare setting need to be very rich, wonderful experiences that are full of lots of things to help them wonder and develop their vocabulary and their critical thinking at an early age,” she said.

Hall says such development can make a critical difference in academic performance by the time students reach third grade and transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."  

In the VPK program, in addition to field trips, lessons involve games with rhyming, role-playing and even one-on-one time on an iPad.

“Some students have never been introduced to computers before the iPads,” said Sharlane Talbert, another teacher in the early learning program. “So this experience is just helping them all around academically.”

And it appears to be yielding results.

In a district where reading proficiency continually lags among grade school students and graduation rates still fall below the state average, these early learners are providing a ray of hope.

Of the students who completed either private and district VPK programs in Duval County, 85 percent are reading on level. That’s according to the latest set of statewide assessments known as Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading — or FAIR — used to measure early learning gains in literacy.

Among students in the district VPK programs, the numbers are higher still, with 97 of students proficient in letter and sound recognition; 95 percent of students proficient in understanding how sounds and words are manipulated; and 94 percent proficient in oral language.

Susan Main is executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Duval, which serves nearly 11,000 children throughout the county through private and public childcare providers. The agency estimates that there are a total of about 12,000 preschool-age children in the county. 

“As a state and as Duval County, if you were a VPK completer, which means you actually went to the program, you did much better on the kindergarten readiness than those that did not access the program, so it is critical that we get every child into the VPK program so they have this experience so they can enter school ready,” she said.

According to the latest data collected by the U.S Office for Civil Rights, about 60 percent of children enrolled in Duval's early learning programs are African-American, about 25 percent are white and nearly 10 percent are Hispanic.
And the numbers of children served continue to grow even as state funding has remained relatively stagnant over the last few years. For the past three years, about $2,400 per pupil was allocated by the state to VPK programs. That's down from about $2,600 in 2010-11. Next year, funding will increase slightly by under $100 per student.

“We’re still behind the eight ball on the funding,” Main said.  

The district’s program, currently serves about 1450 students throughout the year. That’s 250 more than last year. And this school year, it added a its first 3-year-old program--known as “Success by Six”--to West Jacksonville Elementary and R.V. Daniels Elementary schools.

It’s not a silver bullet to solving the district's challenges in student literacy, officials say. But it is an investment Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is banking on to level the playing field and pave the way to more long-term achievement.

“The achievement gap doesn’t exist at birth. It’s society and the lack of opportunity for students, even at the home, regarding verbal development and background knowledge,” Vitti said. “That gap is smaller at the 4-year-old level than the 8-year-old level, so the quicker we can intervene with students with a high-level program, the more likely we are to narrow that gap. “

Narrowing that gap could lead to a much larger class of graduates someday, and potentially more students joining little London Washington in the class of 2027.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.