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Voluntary Pre-K Program Sees Significant Enrollment Decline

 Young child making art.
Erika Fletcher
Young child making art.

Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program has experienced enrollment declines in the past year, raising concerns about what the long-term effects might be for many young learners.

At the same time, the program is trying to deal with a performance assessment that shows almost half the students at the next level might not be getting the tools they need.

According to the Early Learning Coalition (ELC), Hillsborough County’s VPK enrollment dropped roughly 30%, while Pinellas County’s drop was closer to 25%.

Statewide, enrollment is down about 22% -- or about 37,000 children.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one factor for the decline, but officials are looking at other potential reasons.

“It's something that we've questioned ourselves since last fall, knowing that the enrollment honestly decreased so highly. We established a follow-up with phone calls with the families and sharing with them that we're here to help support them,” said Abigail “Abby” Perez, Director of Impact and Community Relations at ELC of Hillsborough County.

This decline has also raised concerns about whether children will have the tools they need -- like early literacy and social-emotional skills -- to be ready for kindergarten.

“We know that kindergarten readiness sets them on a path for success as they go into school,” said Lindsay Carson, Chief Executive Officer at ELC of Pinellas County. “Children who are ready for kindergarten are also going to be more likely to read on grade level by grade three, they're more likely to graduate high school.

“So missing out on these early experiences, is an issue that could follow them for a lifetime if we don't intervene.”

The free program offers children -- mainly 4 year-olds -- a play-based experience that supports the development of tools they will need for future learning.

“That looks like read-aloud’s, sitting at circle time sharing a story, letter recognition, sound, singing songs, and fingerplays, where they're learning the writings of words and ways that they can interpret the sounds and the language around them,” said Carson.

But those face-to-face interactions and hands-on experiences are absent in the virtual learning opportunities offered during the pandemic.

“They don't have the abstract thinking yet. They haven't gotten there in development,” said Carson. “So there's no replacing a face-to-face learning experience for young children. It's just not the same.”

ELC of Hillsborough County is responding with a “big push,” engaging with agencies to share the importance of VPK and summer opportunities.

“We are engaging with provider-based social services, NGO agencies that serve children through case management…to ensure that they know that VPK is available for the child,” said Perez.

ELC of Pinellas County is also looking to the summer with hope.

“We have been providing resources and online opportunities and other ways that parents can support their kindergarten readiness skills at home, if they don't feel comfortable bringing their children in, we do have a big opportunity ahead in that the VPK program has a summer option,” said Carson.

At the same time, a recent state assessment raised doubts about how effective VPK may be for some students.

The Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener found at least 43% of kindergarteners in classes now are not actually ready for kindergarten.

To address this issue, the ELC of Hillsborough County is working closely with the Kindergarten Transition Initiative, the Hillsborough School District, and Head Start.

This partnership specifically targets three to five year-olds to help get the word out to families about the importance of finding the right resources.

On the other hand, ELC Pinellas County is encouraging the continuation of the VPK program, while also trying to improve it.

“Those include things like teacher training, and looking at the credentials of our instructors,” said Carson. “Also increasing the support we offer around English language learners and special needs (and) behavior challenges.

“Another major area that we can improve is really looking at a child's skills as they enter into the program, where their challenges may be, so that we can tailor instruction to meet their individual needs, and then monitor their progress over time to make sure they're getting the developmental gains that they need to ultimately be ready for kindergarten,” she added.

The VPK program may get some assistance from Florida lawmakers.

Rep. Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) is sponsoring HB 419, which plans to revise the program and phase in new assessments.

The bill is supported by both the ELC’s of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“The fact that the legislature has recognized just how critical these early years are, I think draws attention to families and understanding the importance of the early learning experiences that they have for their children,” said Carson.

“Every parent wants what's best for their kids. Every parent wants their children to have opportunities to succeed. And this gives us a lot more information and tools for parents to do just that.

“I feel that it's going to increase accountability for the VPK providers, providing them with additional resources assessments, and opportunities for screening and information for families as well,” added Perez. “So I think the professional development for VPK structures will help create a different landscape among our early learning community.”

But in preparing children for kindergarten, Carson reminds parents that they “are a child's first and most important teacher.”

She encourages families to read every day with their child and practice “the three T’s” -- tune in, take turns, and talk more.

“What that really means is that parents are present, they're listening, they’re taking turns in conversation, not just taking turns with the toy, but actually having that serve-and-return, that dialogue with their children,” said Carson. “And talking more -- talking about the environment around them helps to build those vocabulary skills, and strengthen their early literacy skills.”

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Christina Loizou