Pre-kindergarten students listen to a story. | Courtesy Early Learning Coalition
Pre-kindergarten students listen to a story. | Courtesy Early Learning Coalition

Last year, Rachel Folds enrolled her then-4-year-old son Jameson into voluntary pre-kindergarten at Hands and Hearts in Motion Childcare Enrichment Center in Lakeland, a free educational program that helps ready children for full-blown kindergarten by teaching them letters, words, numbers, colors, and shapes, among many things.

“He learned how to count real high — more than I was expecting for VPK — and identify letters a lot better, also, along with just understanding of stories,” Folds said. “If you’ve given him a book, he can’t read word for word, but he could explain the whole story through every page.”

Jameson’s results are the kind that Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid is hoping to see in coming years. He is proposing to expand the district’s early learning programs, particularly pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds in schools throughout the district, which currently has a waiting list of 1,000 children. In the next few months, he is going to present to the School Board his plans for what he sees as a critical role in bringing up student test scores and helping to mold better behavior.

“It is no secret that VPK data clearly shows that students who attended VPK significantly outperform their counterparts in third-grade literacy,” Heid said.

Data that Heid provided showed third graders who attended a VPK program far outscored their peers who either attended but didn’t complete the program or for whom there is no record of them attending.

Third-grade test scores show students who graduated from a pre-kindergarten program scored substantially higher than their peers who did not attend or finish pre-k. Source: Superintendent Fred Heid.
Third-grade reading test scores show students who graduated from a pre-kindergarten program scored substantially higher than their peers who did not attend or finish pre-k. Source: Superintendent Fred Heid.

Test scores show that in the 2021-2022 school year, nearly 59% of third graders who attended VPK scored a level three out of five or higher on the state’s standardized test, which is considered a passing score. Only 41.3% of those who attended but didn’t complete the VPK program and 40.7% of those for whom there is no record of enrollment passed the test. The disparity continues school year after school year.

“The goal is to improve kindergarten readiness and 3rd-grade proficiency,” Heid said. “If we’re actually putting kids in kindergarten who’re not ready for kindergarten — don’t know their letters, don’t know their sounds, don’t know their numbers, — and have all these other needs potentially — have other social emotional behavioral disorders. If so, why are we wasting time and not addressing that from the age of three and up? We have a missed opportunity there.”

He described readying children for kindergarten as having a domino effect — they will then succeed in kindergarten and be ready for first grade and succeed every year thereafter.

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid in September 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

It is no secret that VPK data clearly shows that students who attended VPK significantly outperform their counterparts in third-grade literacy.

fred heid, polk schools superintendent

“Naturally, you’ll see your scores go up,” Heid said. “We have a tendency to wait ’til third grade. Well, that’s four years of learning that you have to help kids unlearn if they have bad habits. We’ve got to do a better job of getting at these issues earlier.”

Low test scores

Test scores show Polk County’s third-graders are struggling in both reading and math, with 58% failing the last of three reading exams given over the course of the school year last year. In math, third-graders did a little better, with 51% passing the last test.

Polk County 3rd grade reading scores. Source: Florida Department of Education
Polk County 3rd grade reading scores. Source: Florida Department of Education
Third grade math scores. Source: Florida Department of Education.
Third grade math scores. Source: Florida Department of Education.

According to the Florida Department of Education’s website, Florida was one of the first states in the country to offer free prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income. Launched in 2005-06 during Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure, more than 2.6 million children have since benefited from VPK. Data collected by the Florida Department of Education shows that children who participate in VPK are much more ready for kindergarten than children who do not participate in VPK.

Parents can select from one of several program options available in different educational settings, from private and public providers and specialized instructional services providers. To be eligible for VPK, children must live in Florida and be 4 years old on or before Sept. 1 of the current school year. Class sizes are not to exceed 11 students with a single lead instructor, or up to 20 students with a lead instructor and an assistant. And instructors must have a minimum of a Florida Child Care Professional credential.

According to, “The first five years of a child’s life are the most important for healthy development and long-term well-being. A child’s brain develops faster from birth to age 5 than at any other time. Change the first five years and you change everything.”

According to a January 2022 report by Joan Lombardi, a leading early education advocate, health, learning and behavior are connected.

“Holistic child development requires an integration of these elements that transcends their parts; health affects learning, learning affects health, and social-emotional development affects them both,” Lombardi wrote.

But said, “This critical development is in jeopardy for many children whose families lack access to quality early education and care…”

Pre-kindergarten student Isabella Martinez Cortes dances during a Cinco de Mayo program at Mi Escuela Montessori School, a bilingual charter school. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

The group points out that research has proved time and again that quality early learning and care programs are “a smart investment. Economist James Heckman has demonstrated that early interventions can break the cycle of poverty for multiple generations. Parents do better. Children do better. And when those children become adults, their children also do better.”

Children who experience quality early learning and care programs:

  • Are 25% more likely to graduate high school
  • Are four times more likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Earn up to 25% more in wages as an adult

Early learning options

VPK is currently offered at 22 Polk County public schools and serves approximately 550 students. Applications are normally taken in March and the public school options fill up quickly. One thousand students are currently waiting for a slot to open

Another pre-K option is called Title I Pre-K; it’s for students zoned for schools whose population is deemed low-income by federal standards. Title 1 Pre-K is currently offered at 22 sites throughout Polk County and serves 472 students.

Children can get access to VPK and other early learning options through the Polk County Early Learning Coalition. CEO Marc Hutek said coalition partners, which are privately run child-care centers, currently have openings for free VPK. He said those centers allow parents to remain in the workforce while improving student performance once a child graduates to elementary school. But, he said, this critical program is only utilized by about 40% of parents.

“Early interventions can break the cycle of poverty for multiple generations.”

Economist James Heckman

“Although many parents feel the literacy and numeracy skills learned in VPK can easily be taught at home, the social and emotional development that can occur in a highly effective VPK program can contribute so much more to the developing personality of the pre-school brain,” Hutec said. “Attending VPK has proven to benefit children in many ways.  Ask your local kindergarten teacher; they often see the difference when those VPK-completers walk through the kindergarten door.”

And he added one thing is certain: Every individual in our society is or will be impacted by the services and experiences these child-care centers provide or will provide to every child they serve.

The Early Learning Coaltion partners with 351 providers in Polk County, with 3,912 children bennefitting from their VPK programs and another 5,455 enrolled in school readiness programs. Parents can apply online or go to a nearby public or privately run daycare.

Check a list of Lakeland daycares that offer VPK.

The School Readiness Program is a federally funded program “that offers financial assistance to eligible low-income families for early education and care so they can become financially self-sufficient and their young children can be successful in school in the future.”

It is based on total family income and parents must be working or going to school at least 20 hours per week. The program serves children from 6 weeks through 12 years of age and co-payments are assessed based on a sliding fee scale.

In addition, there are Head Start programs in Polk County for children ages 3 to 4 years old. It is a federally funded program that promotes school readiness for children under the age of 5 from low-income families through education, health, social and other services. Income guidelines apply, and there is a significant emphasis placed on parental involvement. Head Start is currently offered at 26 sites and serves 942 students throughout Polk County.


In the past, children merely needed to know their ABCs and 123s to start kindergarten.  Now, school readiness includes everything from physical development – including being potty trained —  understanding mathematical concepts, scientific inquiry, social studies, creative expression through the arts, and language and literacy.

According to Polk County Public Schools, school readiness is defined as “children possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and for later learning and life. (Our) approach to school readiness means that children are ready for school, families are ready to support their children’s learning, and schools are ready for children.”

It’s in the preschool years that children develop what experts call their approaches to learning — how children deal with new environments, interactions, and discoveries, and their attitudes and dispositions toward learning. They include eagerness and curiosity, persistence, creativity and inventiveness, planning and reflection.

According to the FDOE, physical development includes “changes in body proportion, coordination, and strength, as does increasingly complex brain development. (Preschoolers) develop remarkable physical, motor, and sensory capacities.”

Social and emotional development pertains to children’s ability to establish relationships with classmates and adults, and influences how they view themselves and the world. It involves developing healthy relationships and reactions.

A pre-kindergarten student. | Courtesy PCPS
A Polk County pre-kindergarten student. | Courtesy PCPS

“Positive and adaptive social behaviors result from interacting with others who have different characteristics and backgrounds,” the FDOE website states. “With the help of supportive adults, young children expand their capacities to recognize and express their own feelings, and to understand and respond to the emotions of others.”

The FDOE states that math is everywhere and it helps children make sense of their world.

“For young children, math is about number knowledge, patterns, size, shape awareness, and the relationship between objects and space,” the FDOE website states. Components include number sense, patterns, spatial relations, measurement and even very basic geometry.

Students will also be expected to understand simple concepts of scientific inquiry.

“Children are natural investigators and their levels of understanding deepen over time with varied experiences,” the website states. “Exploration and discovery are ways that young children learn about their worlds by first using their senses and reflexes. The initial spontaneous responses of infants become more purposeful as they gain mobility. The expanding physical and motor capacities of toddlers enable them to engage in ever-widening explorations which can promote new brain connections.”

With social studies, students learn about the nuclear family and their place in it, extending to their school and other areas of interaction. They learn about authority and governance and the concepts of civic ideals and practices.

“A sensitive, respectful approach sets the tone for a child’s social learning,” FDOE states.

Children are natural visual and performing artists.  Through this area children are provided with opportunities to express ideas and feelings, use words, manipulate tools and media, and solve problems through the arts.

Language, communication and literacy are the most critical tools to a child’s ability to learn, work, and play with others. Language and literacy development involves the way children learn to communicate with sounds, words and gestures, and eventually, the way they learn to read and write.

Children develop language and literacy through interactions with adults and other children and engagement with materials like books, e-learning and instructional experiences – which can include simple conversations with a child to point out everything around them. Components include:

  • Listening and understanding
  • Speaking
  • Vocabulary
  • Sentences and structure
  • Conversation
  • Early reading and writing

Reading and writing are so vital to a child’s success that in 1995 country music artist and philanthropist Dolly Parton developed the Imagination Library, a non-profit foundation that gives away a book a month to at least 2 million children, ages five and under, whose parent or guardian signs them up for the program. The United Way of Central Florida partners with the program so that it is available to all children in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.

“Before he passed away, my daddy told me the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing I had ever done,” Parton says in a video on her website. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my daddy. He was the smartest man I have ever known, but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams. Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.”

At Monday morning’s City Commission meeting, representatives of the United Community project, including the GiveWell Community Foundation and the United Way of Central Florida, went over their 2023 United Needs Assessment, noting that the percentage of students that are kindergarten ready has declined in recent years, due, in part, to COVID. Those numbers have also gone down statewide, but the decrease was greater in Polk County.

In addition, they said the population growth in Polk is primarily concentrated in families and the under-18 demographic, underscoring the need for quality child-care services and education.

City Commissioner Stephanie Madden said the city is working with developers, particularly those building affordable housing, to encourage them to include child-care centers in their apartment complexes.

“They get some access to state and federal money to build affordable housing — I bet they’d be the most popular apartment complex ever if they had child care, also within their facility,” Madden said.

Expansion Costs

The Polk school district’s budget shows funding for preschool programs at $4.8 million – a $126,000 drop from last year.

In addition, the district has distributed nearly $6 million in state funds and parent contributions to the Early Learning Coalition.  The parents’ contributions are for extended care beyond the three hours a day the state pays for at 65 school locations.

Parent fees are projected to be $1.1 million.

Anticipated enrollment this year is 1,670 students, with a per-student allocation of $2,864 for 540 instructional hours  — three hours a day for 180 school days.  Summer services per-student allocation is $2,393 for 300 hours with an anticipated enrollment of 24 students.

Heid, who has been speaking about this since at least March, told LkldNow his plan calls for increased funding, including retrofitting classrooms at schools that are currently below enrollment capacities. State law requires pre-kindergarten classrooms to have a bathroom and not all buildings, especially older ones, have bathrooms attached to classrooms.

“There would be an expense given the requirements for each classroom, but I believe that the initial investment will yield similar results to those above and help prevent the need for remediation in subsequent years,” Heid said.

At the March 29 School Board work session, Heid noted that PCPS has the space.

“We do have the opportunity and I think it’s time for us to expand our pre-K footprint to get as many students into those settings as possible,” Heid said. “And really focusing there to get students on grade level by grade three rather than waiting ’til grade three to determine that they’re not.”

Heid continued that “it’s a unique opportunity to invest on the front end with students rather than spending millions — if not billions — of dollars chasing them after grade three, with intervention and remediation strategies.”

For Rachel Folds, seeing her son Jameson succeed in pre-kindergarten was all she needed to know to recommend that every parent sign up their child.

“I think it has helped just going and starting school and stuff like that, versus a child who maybe didn’t do VPK, because then they’re just thrown into it not really knowing or could possibly not know what to expect when starting school,” Folds said. “He was excited to go to school and continue on learning.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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