More than 20 years ago, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative to provide high-quality, publicly funded prekindergarten programs for every 4-year-old in the state.
The Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (VPK) is an unqualified success. Since the free program began in 2005-06, more than 2.6 million children have benefited.
As you might expect, Florida Department of Education data shows that children who participate in VPK are far better equipped for kindergarten and by extension, their entire academic journey — than those who do not.
In the four-county region of Southwest Florida that we serve, nearly 7,500 children attended 260 different VPK programs in school year 2021-22.
Those numbers are encouraging, but not nearly enough.
Statewide, fewer than half of the roughly 188,000 students enrolled in kindergarten in fall 2022 completed VPK, with 62% of that group deemed ready for kindergarten based on early literacy tests.
Only 40% of those who participated in VPK, but didn’t finish, scored as high, with just 37% of those who didn’t attend at all deemed ready for kindergarten.
Research by The Children’s Reading Foundation found that children who enter kindergarten one year behind academically have a 26% chance of dropping out of high school. Fall behind by two years, and the dropout odds increase to 45%. Kids with a three-year learning gap at that point will drop out 55% of the time, research found.
Such choices, of course, create lifelong hurdles, from housing and employment struggles to well-established income gaps compared to those who finish school.
At the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, we stand ready to help parents and guardians enroll their children in either summer preschool, which provides up to 300 hours of classroom time, or the regular school-year program, which provides up to 540 hours of preschool. Classes are capped at 12 students in the summer and 20 during the school year. Importantly, programs are offered not just through public and private schools but also at some childcare centers, home-based and faith-based organizations. Parents choose a VPK provider based on what programs best meet their children’s needs, with a curriculum that includes literacy, math, science, and social and emotional development.
If your child is 4 years old on or before Sept. 1 of the current school year, they can sign up. Kids whose fourth birthday falls between Feb. 2 and Sept. 1 can delay their VPK enrollment until next year, when they are 5, provided they don’t yet enroll in kindergarten.
Temporary Florida residents are also eligible — from military families and seasonal residents to those displaced by natural disasters or whose families are experiencing homelessness.
Apply for a VPK voucher today by visiting us online at VPKSWFL.org or calling the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida at 239-935-6100. You can also visit our Fort Myers office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for assistance, located at 2675 Winkler Ave. The office provides free kiosks, and no appointments are needed.
About the Author
Melanie Stefanowicz is the CEO for Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, which provides access to high-quality early education services for children in Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee Counties.