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Florida’s pre-k program yields 63 percent ready for kindergarten

The results are less rosy for children who didn’t enter, or didn’t finish, a year of VPK.
The Voluntary Prekindergarten room is one feature of the new Bardmoor Branch of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The location also includes a child-care center and Preschool Academy.

Even as Florida lawmakers work to improve a prekindergarten program that gets mediocre reviews, the Department of Education is telling school districts that “VPK Works!” as it releases 2018-19 student readiness results.

In her message to district officials, early learning executive director Shan Goff noted that 63 percent of 126,238 children who completed free voluntary prekindergarten were assessed as “ready” for kindergarten after they arrived in the fall.

That compares to 47 percent of the 26,487 four-year-olds who entered but did not finish, and 39 percent of the 55,184 eligible youngsters who did not enroll.

Overall, that’s a 53 percent readiness rate.

The data comes out just less than a year after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the state’s 42 percent readiness rate “not defendable” and called for major changes to the program. DeSantis called for “real accountability” of the providers, and improved learning opportunities for the children.

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis: Too many Florida kids not ready for kindergarten

Since then, the Board of Education has adopted a rule changing the way it rates preschools, to include learning gains in the equation. State lawmakers, meanwhile, have proposed budgets to increase pre-k funding while also advancing legislation to revamp the VPK model. Many of the ideas won broad support, although a plan to grade providers on an A-F scale similar to K-12 schools has largely been panned.

But it’s been clear that one of the issues the officials aimed to tackle was to ensure providers meet performance expectations or be penalized, perhaps closed. A big criticism in the past several years has been that low-performing centers have been identified but not necessarily forced to change or close.

According to the latest data, released this week, 33 percent of the state’s 6,611 pre-k providers will be placed on probation for not meeting the minimum readiness rate of 60. They will have to submit improvement plans and demonstrate gains moving forward.

Another 1.5 percent of the providers are poised to be removed from the VPK system, unless they can win an exception for good cause.

Among the state’s 30 early learning coalitions, some fared much worse than others when it came to the distribution of low-scoring VPK providers.

On the high end, Marion County had 58 percent of its centers in that poor-performing category. The Southwest Florida coalition (Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee) logged in with 52 percent, with the neighboring Heartland coalition (Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands) right behind at 51 percent.

Those with the lowest ratio of centers on the list were the North Florida (Clay, Nassau, Bradford, Baker, Putnam and St. Johns), Flagler/Volusia, Lake and Brevard coalitions at 22 percent, Seminole at 23 percent, Miami-Dade/Monroe at 24 percent and Pinellas at 26 percent.

Want to know how your area preschools rated? See the latest reports on the Office for Early Learning website.