Florida's pre-K program in need of retooling

February 10, 2013 

The state of Florida gives every 4-year-old the opportunity for a free voluntary pre-kindergarten education, a vital pathway to success in math and reading in higher grades. The state boasts the highest enrollment nationwide for the pre-K program with 76 percent of children attending, a study last year noted.

The National Institute for Early Education Research awarded Florida the nation's No. 1 ranking for access to pre-K. Yet the organization's study ranked the Sunshine State last in quality and sharply criticized the state for not requiring a minimum of a bachelor's degree for pre-K teachers -- an education level that has proven critically important to student success. Plus, state funding per child is far below the national average.

The problem is particularly acute in Manatee County.

When Bob Gagnon, Manatee County's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, spoke last week to the Council of Governments, he pointed out the county's poor performance in preparing 4-year-olds for school.

The lack of an educational foundation becomes painfully evident when students reach the third grade, struggling to pass the FCAT.

Gagnon noted that the school district will spend more than $8 million for remedial classes for these students. More jolting, though, is the statewide cost for remediation for first, second and third graders: $350 million annually.

District data from last spring's FCAT revealed only half of the district's third-graders scored at proficiency levels and about a third performed at the lowest level.

Gagnon also presented a startling comparison: Manatee students are scoring at 15 percent of the state average while Sarasota students are performing 45 percent above that average. We applaud Sarasota's tremendous success.

When the number of low-achieving students is high in a classroom, they require extra instructional time that robs middle- and high-achieving students of some of their teacher's time. So the impact goes beyond the cost of remedial classes.

The most crucial time for childhood development are the first five years of life when the brain is growing rapidly, and social and emotional patterns evolve -- all critical for future success. Florida's VPK program is designed to nurture children and lay the foundation for educational progress.

The program allows parents to select a private enterprise or public school for their child, with more than 6,000 providers statewide. That gives Manatee parents plenty of choices. Parents can register for the program through the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, this year beginning on Feb. 20.

Gagnon plans to launch a campaign that includes community awareness and public service announcements to spread the message about how valuable early education is. Manatee's Early Learning Coalition had little money for a similar marketing campaign last year, but specifically targeted Hispanic families for outreach.

The school district could help immensely, especially with the assistance of the business community, which Gagnon hopes will join the effort.

He also wants a stronger curriculum to improve the program, one based on the new Common Core national standards -- another positive for early learning.

While this community can rally around a concerted strategy to improve VPK attendance and success, the state is ultimately responsible for setting public policy that bolsters the program and boosts the odds of student success.

By one estimate, the state's cost for requiring more qualified degreed teachers in VPK would be some $60 million annually. At one point, Florida headed in this direction but dumped the plan when the state budget encountered shortfalls. Still, that figure compares quite favorably with the $350 million pricetag for remedial classes.

State leaders talk about investing in Florida's future through education. They should start at the very earliest age with VPK -- by improving the quality and funding in order to nip remediation in the bud.

In the meantime, Manatee County appears headed to a more aggressive approach to the problem, a commendable strategy.

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