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Floridians Laud Decade-Old Early-Education Effort

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In 1979, Florida began a groundbreaking experiment to provide children in early grades with more individualized attention in the hope of preventing later school failure.

As they prepare to celebrate its 10th anniversary next week, officials say the nearly $1 billion spent on the Primary Education Program has paid off, strengthening the early-years curriculum and bolstering school districts' ability to identify and treat learning problems early.

But despite proponents' faith in the value of prep, rising enrollments and a lack of comparative data tracking student progress have made it difficult to document the program's success.

Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers are expected during the session that begins next week to give close attention to a bill backed by several education groups that would fold funding for prep and several other categorical programs into the basic state-aid formula--a move that some prep supporters fear could weaken the program.

Florida's decade-old program is believed to be one of the earliest statewide efforts of its kind. And it has been a prototype for similar efforts adopted or considered in recent years in other states.

The prep law requires districts to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through the 3rd grade, offer health and educational screening, plan individualized instruction, train teachers, and place specialists in each school to coordinate the program. Districts' plans to meet these goals must be approved by the state.

Although many educators and legislators lavish praise on the effort, they acknowledge that Florida's rapid population growth has prevented many districts from substantially lowering class sizes.

And studies completed in the last two years note that it is difficult to assess prep's impact on students' later success--or to attribute improved performance to the program--because there is no systematic statewide data comparing prep students with a control group.

A June 1988 audit of prep said the state education department had not "taken the steps necessary to ensure that districts have fully implemented" its mandates, and had failed to provide "sufficient information for decisionmakers to judge the impact of prep on education in Florida."

The report by Auditor General Charles L. Lester also concluded that continued categorical funding for prep "will not facilitate its evaluation" and recommended that it be merged into the Florida Education-Finance Program.

A 1987 University of Florida study concluded that prep "is working well and is viewed very positively," but it recommended that the state develop systematic procedures to "enhance the implementation and documention of prep activities."

The study said test-score increases while prep has been in place "support the notion that it has had a positive impact." But, it added, the trend cannot be linked directly to prep.

It also noted that student-teacher ratios, which declined in the years following prep's enactment, have been inching back up in recent years.

The year before prep was launched, the average class size for students in kindergarten through the 3rd grade was between 25 and 26. While that figure dipped to 22 in 1981, it has since crept back up to between 24 and 25, according to preliminary education-department data for the current school year.

In a response to the Auditor General's report, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor agreed with several of the report's recommendations and outlined plans to step up prep monitoring and evaluation activities.

But program proponents note that the legislature did not dictate how the state should evaluate prep--and they point to the difficulty of assessing its long-term effects.

By "identifying problems that are interfering with a child's progress and success, we think that results in improved skill acquisition," said Johann A. Chancy, director of elementary education in the state department's program-improvement section.

It is difficult to assess long-term gains, she said, because "we don't know what it would have been like for that child" without the intervention.

"It is somewhat like the early Head Start audits, where you couldn't really show that these kids 10 years later had benefited," said Representative Walter C. Young, the bill's original sponsor. "All I know is that I've never heard a negative comment--I have had nothing but glowing reports."

State and local officials say prep has enabled them to keep class sizes fairly stable, relative to rising enrollments, and has promoted an approach beneficial to young children.

They point to the rapid population growth that has overwhelmed Florida's schools, bringing in an estimated 1,800 new children every 10 days.

School officials acknowledge that such growth, combined with a lack of funding for new school facilities, has kept districts from keeping classes as small as they would like.

But "reduction of class size is not the most important thing" the program has promoted, argued Patricia G. Heldreth, primary-education coordinator for the Manatee County schools. "It's the additional attention we've given to young children."

The program established "a state policy that is based on the concept of early identification of children's problems and on an individualized approach to instruction," said Wendy M. Cullar, the education department's deputy director for instructional proel10lgrams. The approach "has become our normal way of doing business," for children in the early grades.

Health and developmental screening has helped educators identify and plan instruction for "at-risk" students, while inservice training for teachers has "increased their effectiveness in the classroom," said Alice Webb, an early-childhood resource teacher in Brevard County.

Officials also note that the program has enabled schools to hire additional classroom aides to help offset the effects of larger classes.

When the state's 6,223 teachers' aides are factored in, the child-adult ratio for the state's 584,498 K-3 students is roughly 20 to 1, according to Lavan Dukes, director of information services.

Some educators are fearful, however, that prep could lose its effectiveness if the proposal to change its funding structure is approved.

The new plan--which is part of a sweeping school-finance reform measure designed to equalize local education funding--is backed by 67 of the state's 68 local superintendents, as well as its two teachers' unions and the Florida School Boards Association.

Senator Robert Johnson, chairman of the Senate education committee and a chief sponsor of the bill, said folding prep and other categorical programs into the general state-aid formula would promote more "home rule in education" by setting broad goals and allowing districts more flexibility to meet them.

While supporters stress that prep's program guidelines and auditing procedures would be retained under the bill, some educators fear that funds now flowing to the program could be channeled to other uses.

"Once it goes into the big pot, it's hard to know who is actually going to get it," said Cathy H. Thornhill, a primary-education supervisor in Polk County.

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