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Published in Print: June 21, 2006, as Florida Ponders Low Enrollment for Summer Pre-K

Florida Ponders Low Enrollment for Summer Pre-K

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Florida’s new voluntary prekindergarten program—which drew nearly 100,000 children over the school year—is serving less than one-tenth of that figure in its summer program.

The school-year program began last fall and is operated by private child-care and preschool providers. But the summer program, which serves children in the months immediately before they enter kindergarten and has a stronger academic focus, is operated by the public schools.

It’s not clear if that difference explains the low summer turnout, but the contrast in numbers troubles pre-K advocates.

“The voters did not ask the governor to sign a bill that had two different programs,” when they approved the 2002 ballot initiative requiring that the state offer universal prekindergarten, said Linda Alexionok, the executive director of the Children’s Campaign, a Tallahassee-based group advocating for a higher-quality preschool program. “What we got was improved babysitting during the school year and a mini-FCAT boot camp during the summer.”

FCAT stands for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is the state’s K-12 assessment program.

The most recent enrollment count in the summer pre-K program stands at 8,600, according to Warren May, a spokesman for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the program.

Mr. May said that officials didn’t really make projections for summer enrollment because estimates are usually based on what happened in the previous year. Districts had planned to have many more pupils than they ultimately enrolled, however.

“There was no last year,” he said. Parents can continue enrolling their children over the next few weeks, so the summer number might increase, he added.

No Naps

A variety of reasons may be behind parents’ rejection of the summer program.

One explanation, some observers say, is that the legislation creating the program, which lawmakers drafted in 2005, requires 300 hours of instruction over roughly eight weeks—which comes to more than eight hours a day. That is just too long for some families, they contend.

Another reason for the low enrollment could be that parents are responsible for providing their children’s transportation. While that is true during the school-year program, families likely have to travel farther to get to the summer programs because there are fewer of them.

Ms. Alexionok noted that some parents had sat out the school-year program because they wanted a higher-quality experience for their children and decided to wait for the summer classes.

During the school year, children are taught by teachers who hold a child-development-associate credential—which is less than a two-year college degree and falls short of what many experts say is necessary for high-quality preschool instruction.

In the summer program, the teachers must have four-year degrees and teaching licenses.

But because of the low summer turnouts, school districts are consolidating classes at only a few sites. Therefore, many parents now either have to drive long distances to reach a school providing the classes or miss out altogether, Ms. Alexionok said.

In the seven counties that make up the “big bend” region of the Florida panhandle, for example, about 370 children are enrolled in the program. But closer to 1,000 children were expected, says Lauren Faison, the director of early-learning services for the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend Region. The early-learning coalitions are appointed by the governor to oversee local early-childhood services.

“This is a full day, and some parents might only want three hours,” Ms. Faison said. She added that schools are not allowed by state law to include naps in the instructional hours.

The summer program—which was not part of the 2002 initiative—was created by legislation sponsored by state Sen. Lisa Carlton, a Republican. She could not be reached for comment, but Mr. May contends the summer program was meant to serve as

a safety net for parents who missed the school-year program or who preferred to have their children in a school setting.

Challenge to Candidates

Meanwhile, the Children’s Campaign is pushing to make improving the pre-K program a significant campaign issue in this fall’s gubernatorial election. “There are not enough [legislative] changes from the House and the Senate,” Ms. Alexionok said. “It’s going to have to come from the executive branch.”

The state’s primary is Sept. 5, and two former state school superintendents, state Attorney General Charlie Crist, and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher are among the Republican candidates seeking the nomination. Leading Democratic candidates include state Sen. Rod Smith and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis. Term limits prevent Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, from running for a third term.

The state legislature made only minimal adjustments to the program during this year’s session, raising the per-child cost from $2,500 to $2,560.

But advocates are hoping the gubernatorial candidates will commit to making several improvements—such as offering both half- and full-day programs to meet the needs of parents, and requiring higher credentials for teachers in the private centers. Currently, the law reads that obtaining college degrees is merely an “aspirational” goal.

“We want the word ‘aspirational’ turned to mandated,” Ms. Alexionok said.

Regardless of what the gubernatorial candidates’ responses are, Ms. Faison noted there are already signs that when the school-year program starts up again in the fall, enrollment will top last year’s numbers. And private providers who took a wait-and-see approach during the program’s first round are already expressing interest in signing up to deliver the classes.

“Parents are much more proactive about [signing up in] the fall,” Ms. Faison said.

Vol. 25, Issue 41, Pages 25,29

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