Strong Start by Florida Pre-K Effort Surprises Skeptics

By Linda Jacobson — August 30, 2005 4 min read
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It’s still the beginning of the school year in Florida, but predictions that the state’s voter-approved prekindergarten program would get off to a disastrous start have not come to pass.

The initial confusion by parents and potential providers of pre-K classes prompted last spring by legislative delays seems to have been replaced by the more reassuring news that sites are up and running.

Rich and Peggy Van Sleen of Gulf Breeze, Fla., are paying for preschool for their 4-year old son, Benjamin, because the state's pre-K program is bit available locally.

More than 90,000 children are already attending pre-K programs this first year, making Florida’s one of the largest state preschool programs in the country almost overnight. Supporters of the program predicted as many as 150,000 preschoolers could enroll this year.

“It’s a pretty good start, particularly considering the legislative delays in arriving at standards [for the program] and the fact that the [pre-K] voucher amount wasn’t set until early May,” said David Lawrence Jr., the president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami and one of the chief pre-K proponents in Florida.

Chris Bertok, the director of Annsworth Academy, a preschool in Tallahassee, said recently that all four classes at her two locations were full with 72 students in all, and that more than 30 names had been put on a waiting list. She said she hired additional teachers and might need more administrative help. “There might be a lot of paperwork,” Ms. Bertok said.

Gladys Wilson, the deputy director of the state’s office of early learning, said that for the most part, the program, which calls for three-hour classes, five days a week, had gotten off the ground during the first half of August “without a hitch.”

But she acknowledged a few situations that have sparked parent complaints.

For example, some parents have said that even though providers are receiving state money to serve 4-year-olds, the providers are charging the same tuition that they charged before the program.

Ms. Wilson said state rules allow the schools to charge only for the time that students are in preschool beyond the state-funded three hours. “This is a situation where the parents and providers will have to work that out,” she said.

Meanwhile, Palm Beach County parents grew angry after their school board targeted the district’s limited openings to disadvantaged children instead of enrolling students on a first-come, first-served basis.

Improving Quality

Ms. Wilson said such local decisions are allowed. “A provider can decide who and who not to take, as long as it’s not discriminatory,” she said.

The larger issue, early-childhood advocates and state officials agree, is how to improve the program so the state can ensure the high-quality educational experience for prekindergartners that the 2002 voter-approved ballot initiative promised.

Many providers say that the $2,500 the state is paying per child for a three-hour daily program is not enough to deliver the level of instruction that children should have in prekindergarten. That’s why most providers are depending on parents’ paying for “wrap around” care the rest of the day in order to have enough money to hire additional teachers.

“We’re taking money out of other areas,” Ms. Bertok said. “And I’m not sure our quality is going up that much.”

Mr. Lawrence contends that Florida needs to address the issues of teacher training and credentials. Instead of just stating educational goals for pre-K teachers, which the legislature has done, he said, the legislature should mandate specific requirements that all lead teachers in the program have associate’s degrees in early-childhood education within five years and bachelor’s degrees in eight years.

Currently, a lead teacher must have a “child-development associate” credential, or CDA, which is equivalent to about one year of coursework.

Ms. Wilson said it was too soon to know whether the legislature would strengthen requirements for all teachers during its session next year.

“I think there is clearly an expectation that it would be in the best interest for everyone to revisit that subject,” she said. “But we also know it’s the most expensive thing you can talk about.”

The state already lacks enough certified teachers for K-12 classrooms, she said, adding that instead of holding out for a four-year-degree requirement, it might be more realistic to push for an associate’s-degree credential for teachers, who would work under the guidance of a master teacher.

“That’s the model I used,” said Ms. Wilson, who used to direct a local early-childhood program. “When you have the right master teacher, you can do wonders.”

Seeking Answers

Until lawmakers tackle those issues, officials will be looking to the state’s existing professional-development system to give teachers the training they need to meet the program’s standards.

Tests to see whether the program’s prekindergartners meet state expectations will begin in the fall of 2006. And the state’s 31 early-learning coalitions, or local boards that oversee school-readiness programs, will conduct monitoring visits at the pre-K sites and provide staff development.

Florida will also get help from the federal government in choosing the right mix of training and mentoring. The Tallahassee-based Children’s Forum, a nonprofit organization, has received a three-year, $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide professional development to the state’s pre-K teachers.

The project, which focuses on improving children’s literacy and cognitive skills, will be studied to determine what level of training is the most effective, said Phyllis Kalifeh, the president of the forum.

She added that in the meantime, community colleges are already seeing an increase in the number of students enrolling in courses for early-childhood training.

“People see that there is an intent to move toward more education,” Ms. Kalifeh said. “And that’s encouraging news.”

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