Education

VPK — the open door to kindergarten readiness

Efforts are kicking off to help parents navigate registering, enrolling for VPK

VPK students work together during an Earth Day project at Lincoln Park Primary School in Pensacola in 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Pensacola Today)

Kindergarten is about giving meaning to the letters our kids sing in the alphabet song.

“Kindergarten is all about the sound-symbol relationship,” says Escambia Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “Kindergarten is about sight words, and starting to see connections. Some kids come to school already doing that, others that’s where you have to start.”

There were nearly 3,000 kindergartners in Escambia County schools this year. Based on data analysis by the Florida Office of Early Learning, more than one-third of them — about 1,000 children — were not prepared academically or socially for kindergarten.

As many as 20 percent of them, Escambia school district officials say, are as much as two years behind.

Research shows that children who start out significantly behind in kindergarten are likely to continue to struggle to keep pace at grade level in early elementary school and often throughout their school life.

One step toward getting children ready for the rigors of kindergarten as it now is having them enroll in a prekindergarten program that can help prepare them socially, emotionally and academically for school.

To build on that foundation, the push is on to get children registered for both voluntary prekindergarten and for kindergarten.

The Escambia School District is posting VPK yard signs like these throughout the community to encourage parents to register their children for voluntary prekindergarten. Photo credit: Escambia School Disrtict.

The Escambia School District is posting VPK yard signs like these throughout the community to encourage parents to register their children for voluntary prekindergarten. Photo credit: Escambia School District.

The Escambia School District hosts VPK classes at 14 sites, some run in cooperation with Community Action Program’s Head Start sites. Laura Colo, assistant director of Title I for Escambia schools, says the district has about 500 4-year-olds in its VPK sites every year. The district also has about 50 slots for 4-year-olds who need special education services, Colo says.

In Florida, all 4-year-olds may attend VPK for free.

VPK is broken into two programs — a school-year program which is typically funded for three hours a day of instruction time, and a summer program that is funded for 7 ½ hours a day.

The Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County contracts with child care providers to offer VPK services. This year there are 2,080 children enrolled in VPK programs in Escambia County.

The lion’s share of children who attend VPK in Escambia County do so through a private child care centers or centers affiliated with churches. Altogether there are 85 VPK providers in the county.

To attend a public-school based VPK, you must live in the attendance zone of a school that offers VPK. For next school year those sites will be: Jim Allen, Bratt (a Head Start partnership), Ensley (head start), Global Learning Academy, Lincoln Park Primary School, Molino Park, Montclair (head start), McMillan Prek Center, Navy Point, Semmes (head start), Sherwood, Warrington (head start), Weis (head start), and West Pensacola elementary schools.

Starting now, the district’s Title I office, which deals with federally funded programs for high-poverty schools, is trying to get the word out to everyone with a child who will be 4 by Sept. 1. This week, the district issued a “robo-call” reminder to parents with children already enrolled in public school about enrollmetn at school-based VPKs.

The process has changed recently.

VPK registration is now an online-only process, something that Early Learning Coalition Executive Director Bruce Watson says led to a decline in enrollment of about 500 children for this school year compared to 2014.

Title I staff will help parents obtain a Certificate of Eligibility — proof from the Office of Early Learning that your child is eligible for VPK.

To have a student start VPK in August, there are two steps:

Get your Certificate of Eligibility: Parents or guardians must have an email address, because the state replies to applications electronically.

Next, scan electronic copies of your child’s official birth certificate, and proof of residency (like a copy of your lease to your most recent utility bill).

Those documents will be sent to the Office of Early Learning in Tallahassee, which will issue a certificate of eligibility by email.

Help is available from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Title I office is located at the Spencer Bibbs Center at 2005 N. 6th Ave., Pensacola. The phone number is 850-595-6915, ext. 224 or 277.  The staff has computers and scanners and they will help parents with the online eligibility registration process.

If you already have your paperwork, you can go to directly to the registration site at http://Familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com.

Colo says the turnaround time for Certificates of Eligibility through the Title I office is about one week. Watson says at the coalition’s office, the requests are processed more quickly than that, and parents can expect to receive their certificate within a day or two at most of uploading the documents.

A screenshot of the online registration portal for Florida voluntary prekindergarten program.

A screenshot of the online registration portal for Florida voluntary prekindergarten program. https://familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com/Account/Login

Enroll in VPK: Once you have your child’s Certificate of Eligibility, take a printed copy along with the child’s birth certificate, proof of residency, your child’s immunization record, and a school physical form completed by a doctor from an appointment after Aug. 10, 2015.

If you are enrolling in a School District VPK, you must go to the Title I office at the Spencer Bibbs Center. For parents in the north end of the county, VPK enrollment can be done at Bratt, Molino Park, and Jim Allen elementary schools.

“School based VPK is a full-day program. Students can ride to school on their neighborhood bus, just like older siblings,” said Melanie Perritt, the coordinator for the Title I VPK Program.

“For many families, matching an older sibling’s schedule is most convenient, while for others, finding a private VPK provider close to home or work may be better. We want to help parents find the best location to ensure their child can have a successful VPK experience next year.”

To enroll with a non-school-based VPK provider, contact that center to find out about their requirements. For a list of VPK providers, click here.

Parents also can get help navigating the registration and enrollment processes at the Early Learning Coalition office, located at 3300 N. Pace Blvd, Suite 210. Their staff can also provide information and help with the process. Their phone number is (850) 607-8556 or click here.

Thomas also says that the district wants to put a full court press on registering children for kindergarten early this year.

Escambia School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas

“Many parents you don’t have access to until kindergarten,” he says. ‘This year we will roll out early registration. We want to get you in, get your address, get you the checklist for kindergarten readiness, see if you qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, so that when the first day of school comes, they are ready.

Thomas says he will look at setting up some district sites in the summer so that parents who work near the J.E. Hall Center (on Texar Drive) or Spencer Bibbs (on Sixth Avenue) can drop in and register.

Another important message: That kindergarten readiness starts long before the first day of school.

“Start the day you hold them in your hand the very first time, start talking to that kid,” Thomas says. “Don’t always do the baby talk. tell them what’s going on. Read them a story whether they can understand or not. Let that be something you do every day. If you do that, you’re going to make good progress. You can’t start too early.”