MANATEE — The signs are everywhere.
“VPK HERE,” they read outside schools with names like Grasshopper Academy, Tiny Tots University and Busy Bee Learning Academy.
The state-funded, legislative-mandated program called Voluntary PreKindergarten was created to prepare every 4-year-old in Florida for kindergarten. It’s free, and statistics show it works.
Yet of the reported 3,777 4-year-olds in Manatee County, only 60 percent of them — 2,430 children — attend VPK right now, according to state and local officials.
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The state gives each county $2,500 per child enrolled, so Manatee collects $8 million in funding for VPK throughout the year.
The program is in its fifth year, yet not one county across the state is anywhere near 100 percent enrollment. The state has appropriated about $367 million for the 2009-10 VPK school year.
In Manatee, the county has room to serve another 1,000 children in the 209 provider centers here, said Paul Sharff, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, the nonprofit organization that oversees the program.
That means the county could be getting up to $2.5 million more, which could translate into hundreds of more jobs in education.
“All these children are losing out on free education,” Sharff said.
Still, enrollment numbers are growing here and across the state.
During the past 15 months, 641 more youngsters have joined VPK in Manatee. On Sept. 1, 2008, only 1,789 students were enrolled, compared with 2,430 as of Friday.
Enrollment is up statewide from the 2007-08 school year (134,718) to the 2008-09 school year (147,764), according to statistics from the Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Summer enrollment is not available yet for this year. But even without those numbers, 138,259 children statewide were in VPK programs across the state as of Friday.
Although Manatee has room for another 1,000 children in its current facilities, it wouldn’t be a problem if more than that wanted to enter.
“These providers would make room for them and hire more teachers,” said Sharon Oats, the local ELC director of operations. “Anytime you can bring in a free program, it helps the local economy.”
Filling the classes
The Manatee County School District offers VPK in 20 public schools. Of them, vacancies include: G.D. Rogers Garden and Braden River elementaries, one seat; Manatee High School, two; Gullett Elementary, three; and Lakewood Ranch High School, 10.
The rest are full.
“We consider ourselves to be at capacity,” said Lynette Edwards, the district assistant superintendent of curriculum. “We’re planning to expand to schools including Ballard and McNeal elementaries during the next school year.”
Freedom is starting a program in January. They’re already searching for staff, Edwards said.
“It gives children a really rich preschool experience,” she said. “I would hope more parents consider it.”
At Gullett Elementary, a public provider, enrollment is down by only one student from last year. But Principal Kathy Hayes said she can’t understand that.
“It’s an excellent program,” said Hayes. ”You can’t do better than having teachers certified to work with young children who are teaming with kindergarten and other grade teachers to ensure they are developing the academic skills to support the children’s success in later years.”
Public vs. private
Parents have the option of sending their child to a public or private provider, whose requirements include holding a child-care license and a contract with ELC. Providers have flexibility in structuring the hours per day and days per week to meet the required instructional hours — 540 hours during the school year, or 300 hours during a summer program.
“This isn’t baby-sitting or child care,” Sharff said. “There is curriculum. It’s to teach them.”
Class sizes range from four to 18 students, with four being the minimum required to operate a program.
Andrea Malcolm’s daughter Sam attended Gullett’s VPK program last year and is in kindergarten there this year.
She chose a public provider because, she said, she loved that Sam was exposed early to the elementary school environment.
“Parents should take advantage of it,” Malcolm said. “It really helps prepare them — and it’s free! Plus for some parents who work, at some schools they offer an aftercare program that is affordable.”
Grading the results
After each VPK graduate completes the program, they enter kindergarten and are given a test.
The state DOE then grades each VPK provider on their respective child graduates.
Providers who score low must submit improvement plans to the state.
Earlier this year, state officials announced more than 140,000 kindergartners are better prepared for success in the classroom as a result of the program.
According to the most recent VPK Readiness Rates released this year, 54 percent of students who completed the program last year demonstrated overall classroom readiness, compared to 42 percent of students who did not attend the program.
Readiness rates measure how well a provider prepares children for kindergarten. They are rated on a scale of zero to 300 based on how well their students performed in alphabet recognition, sound recognition and classroom readiness, state officials say.
What affects enrollment?
Sharff, who started with ELC in mid-2008, says enrollment isn’t higher because people don’t know about the program.
He said he only gets $7,000 a year to market the program in Manatee.
Of that, he spent $2,500 to sponsor the children’s parade for the DeSoto Historical Society last year, and more than $1,000 to sponsor the Take Stock in Children’s Breakfast.
The rest of the money is spent on various advertising and signs outside providers’ schools.
It’s not enough, he says.
“The state, due to the financial crisis, it’s hard for them to find the money for this,” he said. “They have to fund these children and I feel they do not want us to advertise because of that.”
But Edwards says parental choice determines enrollment.
“A parent makes a decision to take them, or they don’t,” she said.
Minnie Miracles Preschool just opened in September on 6th Street Northeast in Bradenton; six children have enrolled in their program.
Kimberli Cotton, co-owner, blames low enrollment on the economy, even though the program is free.
“If parents aren’t working, it costs money to drive them to school,” Cotton said. “It might be more important to use that gas to find a job instead of taking a trip across town to drop them off for just a few hours a day.”
To encourage enrollment, they plan to have open houses Saturdays and send out fliers to the community.
Tiny Tots on 9th Street Drive West in Palmetto had two full classes for 36 students last year.
This year, it has 24 students at the school that runs from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. every weekday.
“In this economy, a child’s education is important,” said Gina Trevino, assistant director at the school. “It’s giving them a jump start on kindergarten.”
At Ellen Meade School of Creative Learning on 63rd Avenue East in Bradenton, five teachers teach 43 4-year-olds.
Last year, they taught more than 90 students, which translates to three empty classrooms this year.
“There’s plenty of room for more,” said Assistant Director Crystal Crews. “If we could get enough students, we’d bring in more teachers to help give people jobs. And why wouldn’t parents want their children not to come?”
Crews, also a parent, has had all four of her kids enrolled.
Her first-grade daughter, Amerie, is on a third-grade reading level.
Her daughter, Kiara, is in VPK and can already read.
Natalie Alund, Herald education reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7095.