Families in some of Pinellas County’s most needy communities will have access to free, full-day prekindergarten for their 4-year-olds this fall, thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus money for education.
The school district is using a portion of its more than $200 million in coronavirus relief funding to add or expand the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program, known as VPK, at 25 elementary schools that serve predominantly low-income children. Many of those schools have higher percentages of children who enter kindergarten underprepared than other campuses, where pre-K enrollment is higher.
“In any given year, we have 25 to 30 percent of children that don’t attend, and we know from the data if they complete a VPK program they’re much more likely to be ready for kindergarten,” said district early childhood specialist Gail Ramsdell, who is coordinating the initiative. “By offering it for free, we’re eliminating one of the barriers that may be preventing families from participating.”
The schools offering the full-day program are Bay Point, Bear Creek, Bellaire, Blanton, Campbell Park, Dunedin, Eisenhower, Fairmount Park, Gulfport, High Point, Kings Highway, Lakewood, Lealman, Maximo, Melrose, Mt. Vernon, New Heights, Pinellas Park, Ponce de Leon, 74th Street, Sexton, Skycrest, Skyview, Tarpon Springs and Woodlawn.
Among those, six had fewer than half their incoming kindergartners attend pre-K in the most recently available data.
One of the hurdles to attending VPK in the past has been the model, in which the state pays for three hours of daily instruction. Many families cannot afford the costs for services afterward, and often cannot break away from work to pick up their children at noon.
As a result, some have not put their youngsters into the classes.
The district’s new initiative covers the costs, including meals, allowing parents to avoid making tough choices about a half-day program, Ramsdell said. The only thing the parents must provide is transportation to and from school.
“We’re really excited, because we know this is going to open opportunities for children,” Ramsdell said.
The number of available seats at each school will vary, depending on the usable classroom space. Some campuses might have one class, while others could have five or more.
Clearwater’s Kings Highway Elementary, which had the district’s lowest percentage of kindergarten students with pre-K experience, is slated to have among the largest number of spaces open. Families do not have to enroll their children in the school for which they are zoned.
This VPK expansion comes in addition to the district’s other existing prekindergarten programs. District officials are taking several steps to let parents know that the option exists, including outreach through community centers and other civic groups.
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For more information and to apply, visit pcsb.org/vpk.