Florida’s budget for 2018 is the largest ever at $89 billion, but the students learning how to say the days of the week in Spanish in Monica Heimes’ VPK class won’t see much of that.
Since the inception of Florida’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program in 2005, per-student funding has remained flat. While the state ranks high for access to VPK, it is one of the worst for spending, ranking No. 42 out of 43 participating states.
Per-student funding has come in at about $2,300 for the last several years. With 180 days of school, that is less than $13 per day per student. Many preschools must supplement state funding with their own money to provide quality education.
“It’s just discouraging that the money is never there for education; that this is not seen as something valuable or serious,” said Cristy Campos, owner of The Creative Play School in Fort Walton Beach where Heimes teaches.
Campos’ school is one of more than 6,000 facilities in Florida that offer VPK. Florida was one of the first states to offer the free program to all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income, to prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.
Parents can enroll their children in a school-year program that totals 540 hours, typically translating to about three hours a day, or a summer program with 300 hours. Last year, nearly 80 percent of 4-year-olds in Florida attended VPK.
“One of the biggest struggles I think as a VPK provider and a teacher is there’s no link from our state standards to what is expected of kindergarteners,” Heimes said.
About 76 percent of students who went through Florida’s VPK program tested ready for kindergarten in 2010. This year that number dropped to 54 percent, according to the test results released by the Florida Department of Education.
The readiness assessment includes progress-monitoring measures in print knowledge, phonological awareness, math and oral language/vocabulary areas that are aligned with the state standards, according to the Florida Office of Early Learning website.
Each year, the National Institute for Early Education Research releases a State of Preschool Yearbook. Florida’s latest yearbook shows a lapse in benchmarks met by preschools — only 3 out of 10 were met.
The state lags when it comes to teacher degrees and specialized training, staff-to-child ratio, health screening and meals.
But you wouldn’t know that walking into Pam Todd’s class at Pam’s Lighthouse Learning Center in Niceville. Her students are always greeted with a well-balanced breakfast in the morning before they spend their day planting in a garden, counting and learning to write their name.
Instead of doing worksheets, they read books that teach lessons like “my words have power.” When two students get into a fight, rather than sitting in time out, Todd has them draw a picture of how they’re feeling and share it with each other.
Just like many other early childhood educators in Florida, Todd agrees that the social and emotional skills are vital at that young age. Academics will come later.
“Just because we’re playing doesn’t mean we’re not learning,” she said. “No two kids are the same. They’re all on a different plane as far as where they are learning and how they learn.
“They’re going to get the academics when they go to school. We learn through play. They learn how to get along with others. If they’re still (misbehaving) in kindergarten, they can’t learn.”
Todd and Heimes agree that their students learn best while playing. Their classrooms are covered in blocks, books and other fun learning tools.
When the students play with blocks, they are learning math. When they make homemade Play-Doh, they’re learning science. When they play house, they are learning speech and social skills.
Many Florida educators argue that the kindergarten readiness test relies too heavily on literary skills instead of play-based learning, in which students gain early reading and math skills but also grow socially, express their creativity and explore.
While the test may not show a high readiness rate for upcoming kindergarteners, Erin Davis, a Crestview resident who has seen two children through the program, has noticed an impact.
“I really feel like it prepared her for kindergarten,” said Davis, whose oldest daughter started school in August. “Not only with what she was going to have to know going into kindergarten, but it also helped with the routine of getting up getting dressed and preparing for a school day.
“I noticed a difference in both of my kids attending VPK just shortly after it started. I started noticing more vocabulary, carrying on more detailed conversations and learning life lessons in general.”