LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County 4-year-olds soon could have a new prekindergarten option within the public schools.
School Board members on Tuesday gave a preliminary nod to creating new pre-k classrooms at Oakstead, Schrader and Northwest elementary schools. The program would serve a combination of children in the state Voluntary Prekindergarten program and students with special needs who qualify for federal early education funding.
It would help the district meet federal requirements for inclusion of special education students in mainstream classrooms. And it also would offer families access to a curriculum aligned to kindergarten demands.
"We know what we expect from those children," program specialist Kerry Donegan told the board. "We will be able to prepare them in developmentally appropriate, play-based ways."
Under the plan, which still requires final approval, children would get free classroom education. A variety of state and federal funds would cover the costs.
Before and after school care would be available for an additional payment. Donegan said the prices were set to compete with nearby preschools, while offering a research-based curriculum and certified teachers, which many preschools do not have.
If parents do not pay for the wraparound care, they could be able to attend the pre-k program only. If children miss too many days and jeopardize their outside funding, though, they could be withdrawn.
Children of employees at the selected school sites would have first priority to enter the program. Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said that benefit could help attract teachers and other employees.
A survey showed that interest in such a program among teachers was high.
Children of other district employees would be second, followed by children living in the school zone and then children living outside the zone.
Each classroom would be limited to 18 kids —10 in the state VPK program and eight in the federal special education program.
Currently, the district has 36 Head Start classrooms serving 643 children, with a waiting list that's even longer. It also has 48 prekindergarten-special education classrooms serving 883 students.
The district has nearly 5,000 kindergarten students, though, suggesting that it could prepare many more before they arrive. Larson said if the expansion is successful, it could grow again in future years.