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Advocacy group gives an F to new pre-K plan

A leading children's advocacy group gave Florida's new prekindergarten plan a failing grade Thursday, saying the standards fall below those of almost every other state that offers pre-K.

The program meets just four of 10 quality marks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research, said Linda Alexionok, prekindergarten director for the Florida Children's Campaign. And that's being generous with two, she said.

Georgia met six of the standards and South Carolina met eight. Arkansas hit all of the measures, which include such items as curriculum requirements, class size and teacher qualifications.

The 2002 constitutional amendment mandating universal pre-K in Florida called for "a high-quality program as defined by professional standards," Alexionok said.

But lawmakers chose to ignore the standards, she said. If they had listened to recommendations from the Children's Campaign and others, she said, the program would be stronger.

House Pre-K-12 Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, called the analysis "petty."

"I am sick and tired of people just pointing out that it wasn't enough instead of looking at what is being done for the state," said Arza, who helped steer the bill through a December special session.

He said Georgia started its program small in 1992, and improved it over time. Florida will do the same, he said.

"This is a good foundation," Arza said. "This program will evolve."

Steve Barnett, executive director of NIEER, was less charitable than the Children's Campaign. He said Florida's plan attains just two of the 10 measures.

The Children's Campaign gave lawmakers the benefit of the doubt on curriculum and teacher training, saying the law was unclear but appeared to lean toward attaining the goal.

"We don't make judgment calls," Barnett said. "If you don't meet one of the criteria by just a little bit, we don't say, "Well, you mostly made it.' "

Attaining just two of 10 standards would place Florida at the very bottom of all states offering prekindergarten, Barnett said. Its low rating would be matched only by Pennsylvania, "and they at least require a teacher to have a four-year degree."

Other groups find portions of the pre-K bill troublesome.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, a preschool accrediting agency, told members it found "most disturbing" the provision that would assess pre-K graduates at the end of the program and then rate providers according to the results.

"Researchers agree that children at this age are very variable, and that children's screens or outcome assessments are not in themselves reliable indicators of a provider's quality," the group said.

Florida is hoping NAEYC-accredited schools will provide much of the pre-K classroom capacity.

Alexionok said lawmakers can improve the program's profile with a few changes. They include requiring all teachers to have bachelor's degrees by 2013. The state also could give schools a choice of approved curricula rather than allow them free rein.

House and Senate leaders have said such changes are not likely, at least in the early going. They said the program deserves a chance to perform before making major adjustments.

Former Martin County

educator to direct pre-K

TALLAHASSEE _ Gladys Wilson, who helped craft Florida's new universal prekindergarten program, was named its first director Thursday.

Wilson has headed the state's School Readiness partnership since February. Before that, she was a teacher and coordinator of Martin County's pre-K and Head Start programs.

Susan Pareigis, director of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, said Wilson's involvement, combined with her past experience, made her the best choice for the job.

"There is much to do, but I am excited and encouraged by the increasing opportunities that will be available to families living in Florida," Wilson said in a news release.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solocheksptimes.com or (813) 269-5304.

ON THE WEB

National Institute for Early Education Research standards are detailed at nieer.org/yearbook/states/.

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