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School leader pushes for better preschool preparation

Superintendent Jeff Eakins wants to boost “kindergarten readiness” from 50 to 80 percent.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins asked preschool providers on Saturday to help him increase the number of children who are "kindergarten ready" when they enter school. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published Mar. 30
Updated Mar. 30

TAMPA — As superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools, Jeff Eakins concerns himself with how students progress from kindergarten through graduation.

But their success rests heavily on what happens earlier.

So Eakins ventured into the world of preschool Saturday morning, telling a group of providers at a routine meeting at Hillsborough Community College: “I’m here to say I need you.”

The pep talk and call to action were intended to send a message to the hundreds of community-based schools, chain-operated centers and mom-and-pops that what they do matters and that they are part of a continuum that will make or break Hillsborough’s large school system.

Only about half of Hillsborough’s incoming kindergarten students are ready for school, according to state screenings. Those numbers vary widely this year by school, from 19 percent at Graham Elementary to 83 percent at West Shore Elementary.

School leaders expect incoming kindergarteners to be able to count, recognize letters and and distinguish between colors and shapes. They should be familiar with books. They should know how to interact with other children and express their feelings. They should be able to hold a crayon and cut with a blunt scissors.

When children do not have this preparation, as Eakins learned decades ago as a teacher at Wimauma Elementary, the disadvantages are difficult to overcome. Around the nation, he said, “billions and billions of dollars are being poured into these deficiencies.”

On the other hand, he said, children who are kindergarten-ready have a 90 percent probability of reading on the correct level in third grade. Those children, in turn, graduate high school with their peers 90 percent of the time.

“You’re the game changers,” he told his audience, adding that the 50 percent readiness rate is “a number that we all can start to own together.”

The consequences are significant.

For the past three years, Hillsborough has led the state in the number of elementary schools with the lowest reading scores. As part of his strategy to reverse that trend, Eakins added 400 seats to preschool programs now offered in district schools.

But the roughly 3,600 preschoolers under district roofs make up only 12 to 15 percent of those served countywide.

Working with organizations including HCC, the Early Learning Coalition and the Hillsborough Children's Board, Eakins has been trying to bring more preschools into the fold.

Saturday’s session did not offer many specifics on expected changes.

But Eakins said he is paying close attention to centers that are within two miles of the 50 “Achievement” schools that were targeted for improvement this year because of a history of poor state grades.

The district’s communications department is working on a newsletter to keep preschools up-to-date on developments in the district, with hope that they will share that information with the families they serve.

Eakins has said he wants raise the kindergarten readiness rate to at least 80 percent. “We are committed to getting this right in our community,” he said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.

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