Early learning

Gov. Scott proposes boost for early learning

Luke Graham and Finley Krantz do an astronaut writing assignment with teacher Lisa Ray in VPK class at the Gonzalez United Methodist Child Enrichment Center in Cantonment, Fl. Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Studer Community Institute)

Gov. Rick Scott announced Nov. 23 that he proposed $1.1 billion in funding for early education in Florida.

The funding proposal for the Office of Early Learning, which oversees school readiness and voluntary prekindergarten programs in the state, is an increase of $51.7 million over last year.

It is an investment that Bruce Watson, executive director of the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition says is “a huge step in the right direction” for preparing youngsters for school.

That is a particularly critical effort in Escambia County, where only 66 percent of our 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten, based on state evaluations.

Kindergarten readiness is one of 16 benchmark metrics that the Studer Community Institute measures in the Pensacola Metro Dashboard. Developed with the University of West Florida, the dashboard is a snapshot of the educational, economic and social well-being of the community.

It also is an investment that the Florida Legislature must approve when it returns to work in 2016.

The state funding goes into three pots:

School Readiness, which provides subsidized childcare for children ages 0 to 13, as long as the parent works at least 20 hours a week and makes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For example, a family of four with an income of $36,375 is eligible for the program.

Last year, Escambia County got $13.6 million for School Readiness.

Early learning performance funding, a voluntary program that gives providers that invest in staff development and other areas a 20 percent higher reimbursement from the state.

Voluntary Prekindergarten, the state program that offers childcare providers funding to pay for a half-day of preschool for all Florida 4-year-olds — about $2,437 per child. Escambia County’s share of that for the current school year is $5.4 million.

This year, 2,200 4-year-olds are enrolled in VPK in Escambia County.

Early learning coalitions act as the financial gatekeeper for these programs, accepting money from state and local governments and agencies such as United Way, and passing it through to providers.

New readiness requirements for VPK

The $9.3 million increase in VPK that Scott proposes works out to about $50 more per child.

Watson says he was “mildly disappointed” that the increase for VPK wasn’t more, but “even though it is an incremental increase, it does make a difference.”

Especially, says Tammy Hicks, with new requirements the state has added to providers to use the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment program to measure kindergarten readiness.

“It is better than what we have gotten in the last few years, and it is better than a decrease, which we have also seen,” she said.

Hicks is director of Child Enrichment Center at Gonzalez United Methodist Church in Cantonment.

She said the new program, which will require VPk teacher to evaluate their students at three points in the school year to measure their academic, social and emotional progress, has added to her staff’s workday.

“It’s caused us to have to pay staff more,” says Hicks, whose staff is typically paid $11 an hour.

Teaching Strategies Gold was piloted last year. This year, it’s rolled out to all providers to get familiar with. In the 2016-2017 school year, it will be used to gauge children’s kindergarten readiness — and a center’s effectiveness.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful once everybody gets a handle on it,” Hicks says. “It takes some sitting down at a computer, which a teacher doesn’t always have during the day, and entering in that you are hitting all of the objectives with every child.”

Teaching Strategies Gold requires teachers to measure each child on 38 points, including math skills, letter sound and awareness, science skills, emotional development and social skills.

One each objective, teachers must enter an observation for a child and gauge the level the child performs at — does the child do that task “always,” “sometimes” or “never.”

Amy Philley teaches 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/ Studer Institute)

Amy Philley teaches 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/ Studer Institute)

Hicks said measuring 40 children on 38 objectives has meant teachers have been using naptime to enter their observations into the computer. For centers that may only run a half-day program, Hicks said, that  isn’t an option, and could mean staff would have to stay later to get the new work completed.

That does mean extra expense for centers. But to Hicks it is worth it.This year, providers are only required to do the evaluations in the spring. Hicks and her staff opted to start off doing all three yearly checkpoints, as they will be required to do next year.

“We’re going  ahead and trying to do them, so you can see gains and see those needs,” she says. “If we wait until the end, we might not catch things we need to.”