Editorial: Hillsborough's smart push to strengthen pre-k programs

Children participate in a sorting exercise during activities in a pre-K  class in Tampa.
Children participate in a sorting exercise during activities in a pre-K class in Tampa.
Published April 15, 2019

A high school diploma is a building block for the future, but a child's ability to succeed is shaped much earlier in life - even before the first day of kindergarten. That's why the Hillsborough County School District's effort to strengthen preschool programs is so important and encouraging. Public and private institutions throughout the region should realize the broad community benefit by working with the district to better prepare the next generation.

Nothing captured the collaborative nature of this worthy goal like the recent pep talk school Superintendent Jeff Eakins gave at a meeting with preschool providers. As head of Hillsborough public schools, Eakins is responsible for the quality of the nation's eighth-largest K-12 system. But that success depends in part on the readiness of students coming in the door. And that's why the district and private providers are working to better prepare more children for that experience.

Only about half of Hillsborough's incoming kindergarten students are ready for school, according to state screenings. School leaders expect incoming kindergarteners to be able to count, recognize letters and distinguish between colors and shapes. They should be familiar with books, know how to interact with other children and be able to use a crayon and blunt scissors. These are simple but essential building blocks, and children who lack them start out with disadvantages that are difficult to overcome.

Eakins and his staff have been working for several years to get more students into quality preschools. Hillsborough added about 400 preschool slots this year to elementary campuses that had available space. Districtwide, roughly half of the students enter school kindergarten-ready. Eakins hopes to increase that to 80 percent. Children who are kindergarten-ready have a 90 percent probability of reading at the appropriate level in third grade. Those children, in turn, graduate high school with their peers 90 percent of the time.

That's why Eakins was so timely in delivering the message that public and private preschools shared a common mission. A stronger start in kindergarten is key to improving reading scores in Hillsborough's elementary schools. About 53 percent of Hillsborough third-graders read at grade level, according to the most recent figures, which is below the statewide average. Eakins wants to boost that rate to 80 percent by the year 2023. And improving literacy is key to continuing the rise in the graduation rate, which stands at 83 percent. Eakins wants to reach 90 percent by next year.

This comprehensive approach has the best chance of working, and it's a credit to the relationship between the school district and a host of institutions, from Hillsborough Community College and the Early Learning Coalition to the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.

It's also an example of what can be accomplished by strong civic partnerships. In recent months, studies by the University of South Florida and the region's business community have underscored how important a strong K-12 system is to attracting talent, corporate relocation and investment and entrepreneurs. Virtually every candidate running for Tampa mayor and city council in the March primary spoke of the need for the city to become more involved in the schools' success.

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The preschool effort offers public agencies and the private sector alike an opportunity to help with additional resources. Eakins deserves credit for identifying the problem and following through with ambition.