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Voluntary VPK options abound

By Staff | Aug 14, 2015

More than 100 sites throughout Lee County have programs to give 4-year-olds a jump start on their education through the free voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida Chief Quality Officer Gayla Thompson said there are 143 facilities in Lee County that offer the VPK program, 45 of which are in Cape Coral. Approximately 4,500 4-year-olds will take advantage of the program throughout Lee County.

Of the 143 facilities, the Lee County School District has 19 sites, which includes a few in the East and South Zone. Jeanne LaFountain, director of intervention programs for the Lee County School District, said the West Zone has very few and the greatest need for VPK programs is in Lehigh Acres.

Although the district receives funds from the Early Coalition of Southwest Florida, it partners with other programs, such as Head Start and Title I, because VPK only pays for three hours.

The district has a waiting list of children every year who want to participate in the VPK program, a list twice as long as the number of children that they actually serve.

The district has at least 825 students enrolled in the VPK program. The district provides transportation, as well as breakfast and lunch for the youngsters registered.

According to the Florida Department of Education study, 77 percent of Florida 4-year-olds enrolled in the VPK program last year. In 2013, 82 percent of children who completed the VPK program were ready for kindergarten, compared to 53 percent who did not attend the program.

Youngsters who live in Florida and who turn 4 years old on or before Sept. 1 this year are eligible to register for the free program.

To sign up, parents can log onto www.elcofswfl.org and click on the “for families” link on the homepage, or stop by the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida office at 2675 Winkler Ave., Suite 300, in Fort Myers. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thompson said parents need to bring proof of their child’s age, such as a birth certificate or passport, and proof of residency, such as a utility bill, lease or notarized letter from someone with whom they live if it is not their home.

“Our staff will assist people to use the portal to register their children for VPK,” she said.

Florida Early Learning Center Communications Director Cynthia Sucher said the voluntary pre-kindergarten program is offered to prepare 4-year-old children for kindergarten through emotional, developmental and social skills, so they hit the ground running their first year of school.

“Kindergarten today is what first grade used to be a number of years ago,” she said, adding that a conversation with a teacher revealed that she could not teach kindergarten today if VPK was not offered.

VPK is offered over the course of an entire school year and during the summer.

The school year program has 540 hours of instruction and the summer school VPK program has 300 hours of instruction, which is accumulated during a standardized three-hour-a-day program.

The VPK program has certain credentials that teachers have to follow in order to teach the students. Instructors must have a birth through 5-year-old Florida Child Care Professional Credential, as well as complete early literacy and performance standards special training to be eligible to teach the program.

The program offers readiness activities for the youngsters.

“Children from homes of poverty come to school typically 18 months behind their peers,” LaFountain said. “Kids that live in low income homes hear 30 million less words than their peers, so that puts them significantly behind.”

Those statistics have placed a lot of the district’s focus on such areas as vocabulary development and numeracy. She said a big part of reading readiness is teaching the students vocabulary, so they understand what they are reading.

The standardized program is offered at private and public child care centers; charter schools and public and private schools.

Although many of the sites have hours first thing in the morning, other locations offer various times to help accommodate the parents schedule.

Nicaea Academy Director Darline Pinheiro said the nice thing about the program is parents can choose where they want their child to go. Some parents chose a location that is closer to home, while others might chose a facility that is closer to their work, she added.

“It’s a free choice where they go because every school has a different feeling,” Pinheiro said.

Pinheiro said they found that there were quite a few children going through kindergarten that had never held a pencil or a book of their own prior to their first year of school. She said kids who attend their program will learn to play, socialize, negotiate and think outside of the box, so when they go to kindergarten, it is not quite as big of a step.

“We stay in close contact with the parents, so they understand what we are doing with their children,” she said, adding that for many parents enrolling their child in the VPK program is their first introduction to childcare.

Yolanda Castillo at Bella’s Kidz Academy said they offer a VPK program from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. during the school year, which lasts for 180 days.

They also keep the parents involved by doing portfolios of the children’s accomplishments and achievements. A parent conference is also held three times a year to update them on their child’s progress.

Their portfolio includes such items as the child’s writing, school work and pictures they create, Castillo said.

“I take a lot of pictures of their activities for the parents,” she said.

Both schools, like many in the private-provider sector, keep their VPK?classes small.

They keep their teacher-to-student ratio low with nine students to one teacher to offer one-on-one interaction with the teachers, Castillo said.

The program offers a variety of activities, ranging from music to arts and crafts, as well as learning letters and numbers.

“We get really good feedback from the moms,” Castillo said. “They are very happy they did the VPK because it has helped them when they start school.”

At Nicaea Academy, hands-on instruction is also offered, with a 10-to-one ratio of students to teacher.

“It needs to be because this is our last hope in making the child comfortable because they don’t learn if they are not happy and comfortable,” Pinheiro said of the small classrooms.

Children there also participate in a variety of different centers, including science, math, reading, dramatic play and water play.

And if an instructor is walking around the classroom and notices one of her students is stacking a column of blocks, she might stop and say, “Let’s count the blocks.”

“It’s so amazing to watch them when they enter and when they leave,” Pinheiro said of the children. “Their social and emotional skills . . . self regulating better and their vocabulary has increased. A good VPK program gets them so excited about everything.”

Bella’s Kidz Academy at 2523 SE 15th Place. Their number is (239) 772-8884.

Nicaea Academy, is at 3221 Chiquita Blvd S, Their number is (239) 540-9400