Nearly a third of children entering kindergarten in Escambia County aren’t ready for school. That’s sobering news because the future of Escambia’s economy and workforce very likely depends on those preschoolers and how well they are prepared for school. The educational window from birth to age 4 is crucial. Preschoolers exposed to a rich vocabulary with a variety of words, who have books easily accessible and adults who read to them are much more likely to become better readers and better students. Ultimately they become adults better prepared to deal with a changing workforce and an economy built increasingly on workers who have the intellectual flexibility to adapt as the work world changes. But the sad reality is, too many children in Escambia County aren’t ready when it’s time for kindergarten, and they remain behind through their years in school. Malcolm Thomas, Escambia County schools superintendent, believes that early learning is the most important component of the education system. “If they come to school not ready, it makes all teachers’ jobs much more difficult,” Thomas said. “It’s no mystery that in the third grade 15 to 20 percent score the lowest on the FCAT.” Last year, only 67 percent, or 2,039 of children in Escambia’s VPK programs were scored ready to start school, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning. In Santa Rosa, 81 percent, or 1,445 children scored ready to begin school.
Rating providersFlorida is among 40 states that in the past 10 years started state-funded preschool programs, serving about one-quarter of 4-year-olds. Ideally, voluntary prekindergarten, or VPK, improves school readiness by providing high-quality preschool. In 2010, Florida revised its preschool rating system. A successful VPK is one where 70 percent or higher of students receive a passing score on their kindergarten readiness test. If the scores drop below 70 percent, the VPK is deemed nonperforming. Of the 92 providers rated in Escambia County in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, 75 percent had a readiness of 70 or higher. The average rate was 78.6 percent. Providers in Santa Rosa County fared much better. Of 37 programs, 89.2 percent rated 70 or higher. The average rate was 85.8 percent. Programs with fewer than four students are not rated by the OLC. Escambia’s readiness rate for providers averaged 75 percent during a three-year period, receiving 72.9, 75.1 and 78.6 percent respectively.
Early lessons last a lifetimeEarly learning has become the buzz across the country. President Obama has thrown his weight behind high-quality pre-K for all children. New York City recently received a $300 million commitment for state lawmakers to expand pre-K programs. It’s been proven that the highest-quality programs can produce up to a year of additional learning. Children see gains throughout their lives — from improved graduation rates and earnings to decreased rates of crime and adolescent pregnancy. Research shows that children born into poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than more affluent children, and that can affect test scores and IQ. It also shows that a quality pre-K program can improve a student’s early language, literacy and math skills during an important time for brain development. Children who are the most vulnerable — particularly low-income children of color — benefit the most from participation in high-quality preschool. Those programs have larger impacts on children’s development and are more likely to create gains that are continued after the child leaves preschool. Teacher qualifications such as higher education attainment and background, certification in early childhood or higher pay than average for the field have shown to improve the quality of some programs. But research also shows that qualifications alone do not ensure greater gains for children during the course of preschool.
Wee Kare Academy’s successBetter preschools had quality and ongoing supports to teachers to ensure that the experiences of children, provided through activities and interactions, were rich in content, stimulation and emotional support. Wee Kare Academy in Pensacola is considered a high-quality program. It received a readiness rate of 100 percent last school year. Brenda Hardy started the program in 1988 with one part-time child. Now more than 125 children, from infants to 12 years, attend the Academy on 12th Avenue. The Academy is nationally accredited. Eight of the 20-member staff have worked there for more than 20 years. And each of the eight head teachers has Florida Child Care Professional Certification credentials. Hardy credits the staff’s longevity, stability and parental involvement as keys to the program’s success. “We all are working together as a team,” Hardy said. “All of us are on the same playing field.” Kequanda Stallworth has experienced the success of Wee Kare from both sides. Stallworth, 22, teaches the Academy’s 3-year-old class. She has two children enrolled and she attended the preschool as a child. “I knew my kids would do OK and be prepared when they finish,” she said. “I’m happy with the foundation they are getting.” On a warm, sunny spring morning at Wee Kare, Shemetri Charley led a bouncy bunch of 4-year-olds through a series of songs, alphabets and two-syllable words. In a cramped room covered with posters of alphabets, numbers and children’s art work, Charley transitioned with ease from one lesson to the next. The 12 pupils sang, clapped and jumped to the tune of “One Little Monkey.” Charley corralled the class into a circle and dumped laminated index cards on the alphabet rug. “Let’s go Andarus, let’s go!” Charley said in unison with her class. Andarus picked up a card and read each letter of another child’s name. “One of the tricks to learn the alphabet is to learn somebody’s name besides their own,” said Charley, who has been a lead teacher for nearly 10 years. Hardy, the school’s director, said success comes from teachers and parents working together to make a successful child. “Parental involvement is so important,” Hardy said. “Kids know exactly what to do and when to do it.” Most of the 12 children in this class will move on next year to kindergarten. Their assessment will determine readiness rate for Wee Kare next year.
Flawed systemProviders and education officials alike have concerns about the evaluation system for preschoolers. Bruce Watson, director of the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, says the assessment is flawed. “I don’t find it to be all that accurate,” Watson says. “It would be much fairer and more equitable if they could find a way to drive the testing back into the VPK process.” Four-year-olds in VPK are assessed three times over the course of a school year to gauge their progress. But the final determination of a center’s readiness score doesn’t come from those tests: It comes from tests given to the children within the first month of kindergarten by their new kindergarten teacher. The evaluation comes from two tests. One is observational in which the teacher watches the child’s interaction with peers, self-control and problem-solving skills. In the other test children are assessed on phonetics, recognizing letters and the beginning and ending sounds of words. The timing of the testing concerns Watson because he says it comes at the start of a new school year, at a new school, with a new teacher after being on summer break. “They don’t take the results of the kindergarten teachers and give them an assessment when they start first grade with a different teacher,” Watson said. “They allow the same teacher to do their post-assessment on the front and back end but they don’t afford that same opportunity to VPK.” If a VPK provider falls below 70 percent based on the kindergarten assessment, it is placed on probation for up to three years, has to submit an improvement plan and adopt a new curriculum. If the program fails to meet standards it is shut down and has to reapply for VPK. Another issue, Watson notes, is that small differences in the testing pool can make a big difference in a VPK’s rating. If one or two children in a class of 10 don’t do well, or if one or two of those students end up going to private school for kindergarten and aren’t tested as their public school peers are, the center’s rating suffers. “It’s really not a formal test as much as it is a subjective analysis,” he said. Superintendent Thomas agreed that it’s unfair to VPK and public schools that the assessment is given at the start of kindergarten instead of the end of preschool. “Measure them at the end of VPK,” he said. “For some reason they have pushed that on to the public school.”
Challenges come with keeping scoreMary Ann Winstead, director of Myrtle Grove Preschool Learning Center, laments the perils of readiness scores. In 2012, Myrtle Grove’s readiness fell to 63 percent, seven points below the rate considered success. The next year probation was lifted when the scores rose to 77. In 2012, some of Myrtle Grove’s higher-performing preschoolers moved away or entered private school and didn’t take the kindergarten test, Winstead said. The challenge now is keeping the scores up to avoid the perils of probation, Winstead said. That means skimping on extracurricular activities such as music, art and dance to focus more on core academics. “There’s a notion out there that preschool is daycare and nothing needs to be learned,” Winstead said. “It takes more people seeing the benefits and sharing the importance of preschool.” Winstead believes that better access to preschool programs will give more children a better chance of being school ready, finishing high school and being career ready. “Birth to 5 years old is critical,” she said.
Work in progressJerry Maygarden, Pensacola Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said early learning is vital for workforce development. He recalls the Early Learning Coalition saying that about 27 percent of children arrive unprepared for school and never catch up. “The No. 1 thing I hear from employers is to send us people ready for work, but a lot of young people don’t enter school ready to learn and are not completing high school,” Maygarden said. “I always tell people that workforce development begins in prenatal.” Getting the children who need such services to use them is a challenge this community must face. In Escambia, 28.5 percent, or 1,049 out of 3,681, of 4-year-olds are not enrolled in a VPK program, according to population data provided by the Florida Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research. There is concern about reaching more families of children who would benefit most from VPK. The number of birth- to 4-year-olds below 150 percent (family of four at $35,325) of the federal poverty level was estimated to be 6,280. Only 41 percent, or 2,584 children, took advantage of school readiness programs. That means that more than 3,600 of low-income children who qualify and could benefit from VPK weren’t served last year. To reach more families and get more children to enroll in VPK, Watson said the coalition works closely with agencies such as United Way, Escarosa and the Department of Children and Families. Watson also uses a variety of publications to advertise, civic and community groups and career fairs. A campaign to advertise on ECAT buses will hit the streets in the summer, he said. He realizes more work needs to be done. “The truth of the matter is 25 percent or so of our children are not ready for kindergarten,” Watson said. “Do you know how many kids fail to successfully negotiate the third-grade reading FCAT? It’s about 25 percent.” Thomas also has some concerns about the state-sanctioned early learning program. He believes VPK needs standardized curricula and testing. While Thomas doesn’t advocate that VPK teachers be required to have four-year degrees and teacher certification, he does see a need for more professional development in early childhood education. There’s also the problem with access. The state only funds a four-hour day. That puts a strain on some parents who have to work eight hours and can’t pick up their children in the middle of the day. “Parents may want to participate but can’t,” he said. “It’s easier to leave them with a relative than to enroll in VPK.” Extending hours could increase participation by providing better access, but Thomas stops short of endorsing mandatory pre-K. He does like the idea of making it mandatory for children who don’t meet basic standards or who are considered at-risk.
Good investmentWith more than 100 VPK programs to choose from, Watson wants to help set the high-quality programs apart from the rest. Next year he will implement the Quality Rating and Improvement System. Programs will be assessed and given star ratings. New programs will get one star and the ones that go above and beyond in every category will receive four stars. That way, Watson believes, people can determine which programs are doing well and which need improvement. “It’s not just to rate them, it is also to assist them and inspire them to improve,” Watson said. The bottom line is that high quality early education is a strong investment that yields a high return. Watson says that only $1 invested is estimated to save at least $7 in unemployment and criminal justice costs. “Studies show that children who are not ready for kindergarten are more likely to be incarcerated, have more social issues, use drugs, you name it,” Watson said. “It’s not a guarantee but the statistics are what statistics are: If you can get that child ready for kindergarten, you can get him that leg up on life.”
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