VPK in Florida grows up

  • January 14, 2016
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   education

Amy Philley has students surround each other teaching students about planets and the solar system in her VPK class at the Gonzalez United Methodist Child Enrichment Center in Cantonment, Fl. Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Pensacola Today)

The state program that provides a half-day of free preschool for all Florida 4-year-olds is growing up.

Florida voluntary prekindergarten program is 10 years old and state officials will mark the moment on Jan. 26 at Children’s Capitol for a Day.

Since the program began in 2005, 1.7 million children have been through voluntary prekindergarten.

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“We’re reaching 75 percent of all 4-year-olds” statewide, said Tara Huls, who leads VPK program and policy in the Office of Early Learning. “We have funding for 100 percent of the children if they wanted to come.”

The Office of Early Learning, which is under the Florida Department of Education, oversees early learning efforts in the state, including the VPK program.

In the recent flurry of stories about the impact that prek can have on a child’s educational future — including high-profile reports from Vanderbilt University about the long-range impact of Tennessee’s state VPK program — Huls says it is important to keep perspective.

Vanderbilt researchers found after a five-year, $6 million study that children in Tennessee’s VPK program benefitted early on by being more ready for kindergarten. But by the time they reached third-grade, they didn’t hold on to those gains and pulled about even with students who didn’t have VPK.

“No preschool program is not an inoculation against what happens in the future,” Huls says. “Children may go on to elementary experiences that may not benefit them in the same way.

“When you just look at the impact of preschool, from studies like the Perry Preschool Project or the Abecedarian Project, (which both study the impact of early education over decades of a person’s life) there are other effects (besides academic) as well.

“We know children who enter kindergarten do better on readiness,” Huls says. “That’s not to say that’s the only factor, but it is correlational.”

In Escambia County for the 2013-2014 school year, 66 percent of children were ready for kindergarten, a ranking that puts the county in the bottom 25 percent among 67 counties statewide.

Huls said that when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was being used in third grade to gauge a student’s proficiency in math and reading, children who were in VPK were scoring slightly higher than children who were not.

“It was not a big number, but it was a statistically significant result,” she said.

Now FCAT has been discontinued in favor of the Florida Standards Assessment, a testing product that is entering only its second year of use. In early January education officials set the bar for what counts as passing the FSA by grade level — in education-speak, the “cut scores.”

Changing, too, is the way that kindergarten readiness will be measured in Florida.

Officials have said it will be 2017 before there is enough data to issue new readiness rates. The data we do have shows about 1 of every 3 Escambia children is not ready for school.


The academic aspects of readiness have been measured, roughly, in three areas:

Alphabet knowledge, which is the knowledge of letters and letter sounds, phonological awareness, compound words. Huls says one example is if a child can blend syllables. The highest level of that skill is called onset rhyme — the ability to break “cat” into the sounds “c-” “-at” and know that you can do the same with words like “bat,” “sat,” and “hat.”

Oral language vocabulary, which is a child’s understanding of categories of words and how they are related.

For example, does the child know the words “cow,” “horse” and “pig” all refer to animals and that you can find them on a farm. Measuring this skills goes directly to the “achievement gap” highlighted by the Thirty Million Words Initiative and Dr. Dana Suskind.

The figure comes from a study that found poor children hear on average 30 million fewer words than their peers from more well-to-do families. The same study also highlighted that poor children were more likely to hear negative words than positive words.

“That’s why having a wide language base is important, so that they can link the things that they are reading to knowledge they already have,” Huls says. “It is to catch kids who can sound out a word but don’t have language context to hang it on.”

Mathematics, number sense, rote counting and one-one correspondence. Huls said across the state, Florida has done a strong job with literacy base “but one of the things we found in math is, statewide, kids score lowest on that compared to language skills.


“We’re creating some professional development for providers to help them with teaching math,” she says. “Teachers can be more comfortable with reading a book, but may not be so comfortable with math.”

“One of the ongoing challenges in early childhood is what is quality and what is the best way,” Huls says. “If you look at the educational qualification of teachers, class size, the availability of transportation, there’s a huge amount of discussion about what best promotes the highest amount of quality.”

Huls of course notes that in the end we do need to be able to know if children are making progress in a program or if they aren’t. Florida hopes the new Teaching Strategies Gold evaluation system being rolled out through VPK providers this year will help set good, new benchmarks for readiness.

But sometimes, she notes, the answer isn’t always as clear as it seems it should be.

Take for example, Head Start, an early childhood education program that has been around nationally since 1965.

If you look at what Head Start offered early on, Huls says, it included not only education intervention for the young children, but also “family involvement and engagement to help support and surround these families and promote their success.”

When they got to elementary school, Huls says, the predominant focus is only on the academic interventions. The wrap-around services that Head Start provided weren’t there anymore.

Project Follow Through was supposed to battle the “fadeout” effect of Head Start, and be an extension of Head Start into the early elementary years. But the models of were not set up consistently, the results varied widely, and amid political and social debate about its effectiveness, funding was cut.

Education is one important facet of helping a child succeed; the support system around that child and her family is another, Huls says.

That’s what makes projects like the C.A. Weis Community School worth watching.

To see if Pensacola can discover its own answer to that puzzle.