Nascent pre-K program full of kinks

Confusion about rules has adverse effect on enrollment


Published: Monday, August 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 1, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
Peggy Van Sleen of Gulf Breeze is just one of thousands of Florida moms who weren't able to take advantage of the new universal prekindergarten program cranking up for the first time this week.
Her 4-year-old son, Benjamin, will attend a private program at his parents' expense - an advantage many others who fall through the bureaucratic cracks won't have.
"We got hit by hard by (Hurricane) Ivan and could definitely have used the $230 a month for pre-K," Van Sleen said. "I thought it was a wonderful program, but I don't know why it took so long to come up with the rules. Any parent knows you have to make a decision on preschool by February or March or you may not be able to get them into one."
She didn't want to take that chance. Lawmakers couldn't agree on the prekindergarten policy in their 2004 session and finally agreed on a measure palatable for Gov. Jeb Bush in a special session last December. Bush signed it into law in January.
But they didn't come up with the state's subsidy, roughly $2,500 a pupil, until this spring and the compressed period forced educators, preschool providers and parents to scramble.
"They are inventing solutions as they go," said Laurel Zinssar, director of a Winter Park preschool that has enrolled 51 youngsters in its program. "Getting information was another challenge . . . Month by month they add a little bit more. It's hard to figure out."
As zero hour approaches for the start of the voluntary prekindergarten program, no one is sure what is going to happen: How many 4-year-olds will show up? Or, where will they show up?
"We don't have a complete handle on the supply and demand in each county," Bush said.
There is, however, plenty of agreement that a lot of kinks need to be worked out.
"It's a big undertaking from a standing start," Bush said. "We've had some bottlenecks in some of the counties."
Van Sleen lives in one of the areas where the nearest public school is already jammed and doesn't have space to add a prekindergarten program.
"I was told they were just not able to do it," Van Sleen said. "And the private ones said the rules were not definitive enough, the accreditation was not definitive enough for them to go forward."
While enrollment has moved slowly, officials expect things to pick up with 24 of the state's school districts opening for business this week.
"We want people to be prepared in case there are some 4-year-olds that show up thinking that VPK is at their neighborhood elementary school," said Shan Goff, who oversees the curriculum portion of the program for the Department of Education.
Right now, enrollment looks to be falling well short of the 160,000 predicted by lawmakers when they passed a $400 million appropriation earlier this year.
"Some parents are still shopping," said Gladys Wilson, who oversees the program providers for the state Agency for Workforce Innovation. She reported about 87,000 had signed up as of last week.
Nearly three of every five Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 to create the pre-K program in 2005, but lawmakers struggled to come up with a program that met the "high quality" component of the initiative.
Susan Main, executive director of the Education Coalition of Duval County, said she has been surprised by the small number of children who have enrolled. The biggest complaint she has so far is all the information that needs to be put into the state computer, which she said is slow and cumbersome.
In other areas, things have gone better. "I know there have been problems and complaints around the state, but St. Johns County is going smoothly," said Teresa Matheny, director of a private program. "We are just trying to get the word out. There is some confusion since it's a new program."
Seven of every eight pre-k students will be at private facilities, due largely to the public schools teacher squeeze caused by Florida's class size restrictions, Goff said.
Fourteen public school districts, mostly in northeast Florida and the Tampa Bay area, are not participating because the don't have space and another eight districts are ineligible because they are not in compliance with the class size requirements for grades pre-k through third.
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings recently made some public relations stops at schools to call attention to the voluntary program designed to provide 540 hours of instruction during the school year with no more than 18 students in a classroom.
Few prekindergarten teachers will have degrees, which are not required. That troubles state Rep. Lorrane Ausley, D-Tallahassee.
"This is too important for us to be playing around with it," added Ausley, who pushed unsuccessfully for having degreed instructors in the classroom by 2010.
"It took us so long in the Legislature to get around to what this should look like, we've put these guys in a frenzy to get this done," she said.
Two adults would be assigned to classrooms with more than 10 children during the school year with the lead instructor requiring a high school education and a 120-hour child development associate certification.
"We've got a great place to start with the child development associate and more targeted and focused expectations in the kind of skills kids need to have when they enter kindergarten," Goff said.
Her counterpart at the Agency for Workforce Innovation agrees.
"We know if we do this right we'll make a difference in the number of kids who pass the third grade FCAT and stay in school," said Wilson. "It isn't something we take lightly."

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