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Enrollment for VPK to start today

BRADENTON — Starting today, parents in Manatee can begin enrolling their children in voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for this fall and for the summer of 2011.

The state-funded program created to prepare every 4-year-old in Florida for kindergarten is free, but children must have a certificate of eligibility prior to enrolling with a school.

The certificates are valid for public and private VPK locations and are available at the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County’s office at 3526 Ninth St. W., Bradenton.

Program participants must be 4 years old by Sept. 1, 2010 and legal Florida residents. Proof of residency and a valid birth certificate are required.

Appointments are not necessary, and the Early Learning Coalition is slated to issue certificates through the end of the year.

There are two types of VPK programs to choose from — one that runs 540 hours during the school year and a 300-hour program during the summer.

Entering its sixth year, VPK is a parental choice program, meaning parents may choose their VPK provider.

In Manatee, there are more than 200 providers, according to Paul Sharff, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition, the nonprofit organization that oversees the VPK program.

The Manatee County School District offers VPK in 20 public schools, according to Lynette Edwards, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum.

To help simplify enrollment this year, the district is slated to have a special VPK choice period that runs March 1-19 in which parents can visit the district’s Parent Information Center, 234 Manatee Ave. E., if they want to request a public provider.

Mike Barber, a district spokesman, said parents will not be able to enroll their children at individual school sites.

Requests during the school choice period from parents wanting a specific school will be evaluated against several criteria, including where they live.

A computer program will then run all parent requests, and a letter notifying parents of their school assignment will be mailed to them in late March, Barber said.

The state appropriated about $367 million for the 2009-10 VPK school year.