Day: Voluntary prekindergarten pays off

TP_356291_ALLE_Day  (06/29/2012 TAMPA) New staff headshots for Sherri Day.[WILLIE J. ALLEN JR., Times]
TP_356291_ALLE_Day (06/29/2012 TAMPA) New staff headshots for Sherri Day.[WILLIE J. ALLEN JR., Times]
Published Apr. 17, 2015

The email landed in my in-box in early March.

"We will need your child's VPK certificate no later than May 1st to confirm their seat in our class for next fall."

It was on. I needed to gather documents: birth certificates, proof of residency and Social Security numbers. I was desperate to get my boys, 4-year-old twins Anderson and Carter, into the state's Voluntary Prekindergarten program at their preschool.

VPK started in Florida a decade ago, the manifestation of a 2002 constitutional amendment in which voters approved free education for all 4-year-olds. The program aims to remove barriers to a quality education so students are on track for kindergarten-level work. Yes, kindergarten. Trust me, it's not what you remember. They're doing word problems and conducting science experiments.

Studies show that quality education in the early years is important. Consider that 85 percent of the brain develops by age 5. Or that 3-year-olds from high-income families have been exposed to 30 million more words than 3-year-olds from low-income families. Children who aren't exposed to quality learning and enriching life experiences at a young age are already behind by the time they reach school. Sometimes feelings of academic inadequacy can lead to a disdain for school or worse, triggering the widening of an achievement gap that so many minority students never close.

VPK helps to bridge the divide and allows children to practice social and behavioral skills, tools that can help them avoid discipline problems down the road.

"It's a leveling of the playing field," said Jeff Eakins, acting superintendent of Hillsborough County schools.

Yet nearly 20 percent of Florida 4-year-olds aren't enrolled, according to the state Office of Early Learning. Participation in VPK stands at 75.3 percent, down from a high of 80.5 percent in 2012. Unfortunately, the statewide drop reflects a national trend. State officials don't track the students whose families choose not to participate. But anecdotally the reasons for not signing up range from lack of knowledge about VPK to a desire to send children to child care programs that don't offer VPK or homeschooling.

The state funds VPK programs that operate during the school year and summer. It also has an offering for children with disabilities. Unlike Head Start, a federal program available to low-income families, VPK has no income restrictions, essentially providing a free program for some and a discount on quality child care for working families like mine who take advantage of the three hours of free schooling a day and pay the difference for wraparound care.

According to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Florida ranks second in the nation in providing access to its VPK programs. But it is 35th in per pupil spending, and it meets only three of 10 benchmark quality standards, scoring well on early learning standards, student-teacher ratios and site visits. Even with Florida's challenges, which need to be addressed by the Legislature, I'm still a believer in VPK.

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In 2011, 79 percent of children who finished VPK were kindergarten-ready, compared with 55 percent who did not participate. My 7-year-old daughter, Sidney, completed VPK in 2013 and entered kindergarten reading above level, which boosted her confidence and continues to pay off every day.

Early Learning Coalition officials across Tampa Bay are working to make sure the public knows about VPK. Statewide, the enrollment process has migrated entirely online, making it more convenient for parents who don't have time to submit paperwork in person. This year, parents can use mobile devices to upload required documents, and those who need help can still visit a coalition office in their respective counties.

Within about a week of submitting my sons' VPK applications, I received an email inviting me to download their VPK certificates. I quickly took the paperwork to their preschool to reserve their spots. But my work is far from done. One of the biggest influences on a child's academic success is parental involvement. It's why I beg for box tops, use vacation days to chaperone field trips and try to engage my children on a daily basis, checking homework and asking about their days.

Not all kids will grow up to be rocket scientists, engineers or Silicon Valley standouts. But every child deserves to have a shot. And there is help for families who embrace it.

Sherri Day is a Times editorial writer.