1. The Education Gradebook

With classrooms to spare in urban areas, Hillsborough wants to fill empty space with preschool kids

TAMPA — Hundreds of low-income children could have access to quality preschool next year under a plan now under development in the Hillsborough County School District.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday he has asked his assistant superintendent in charge of academic support and federal programs to scout out elementary schools in high-poverty neighborhoods that have extra rooms that can be refitted to accommodate 3- and 4-year-old students.

With 29,000 vacant seats, mostly in the urban areas, Hillsborough has the room.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

And, with some of the lowest reading test scores in the state, there is also a documented need for better preparation.

Fewer than half the district's incoming kindergarten children arrive with enough preparation for the work they are assigned. In some schools, those percentages are in the 20s and 30s.

Head Start, the federal preschool program, gets some children ready, but it has its drawbacks.

Participants in Head Start must qualify according to income. And in many cases, they attend Head Start in one school and kindergarten in another.

The model Eakins described would have the child attend the same school for both preschool and kindergarten.

In that way, he said, a child who breezes through the preschool curriculum can get an early start on his kindergarten work.

"We are literally creating the pipeline and the transition for kids," Eakins said.

The idea, he added, fits into a broader concept of creating opportunities for students to look ahead to the next level of schooling.

"I see it as an interstate, where kids do not have stop signs along the way," he said.

Eakins said he hopes to have a preliminary list of locations by December. Money would come from Title I, the federal program that exists to close the achievement gap between higher-income and lower-income children.

While the state's new education law, known as House Bill 7069, imposed restrictions on the use of Title 1, Eakins said it still allows some money to be set aside for early childhood education.

Although it is too early to know precisely how many children will be served, Eakins said he hopes to accommodate several hundred. Districtwide, there is now a gap of 1,500 between the number of children who need preschool and those the district is able to serve, he said.

One goal Eakins hopes to accomplish with this plan is to improve reading scores.

Nearly one in four Hillsborough students, or 24.7 percent, reads at Level 1, the lowest on the Florida Standards Assessment. Statewide, 22.8 percent of students are at Level 1.

For the last two years, Hillsborough also has had the most schools by a wide margin on the state's list of 300 schools with low reading scores.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or Follow @marlenesokol.