Polk County Pre-K students. | Courtesy Polk County Early Learning Coalition

The clock is ticking for parents who want their 3- or 4-year-old children to attend one of the county’s free preschool programs next fall.

Online applications are being taken for one more week – until April 7 – for young children to be enrolled in Polk County Public Schools’ free early learning programs, including Head Start, Voluntary Pre-kindergarten, and special education classes for disabled children.

“There isn’t a better way to create a foundation for lifelong success than getting children involved in high quality preschool programs,” Superintendent Frederick Heid said in a new video to encourage parents to enroll their children.

“Even before children learn to walk and talk, they’re already learning. Interactions like talking to and reading to children help them develop their young minds. Without a doubt, preschool programs help children become lifelong learners before they even step into a kindergarten classroom,” he said.

Because the programs are first-come, first-served, Heid recommends that people apply as soon as they can. By Tuesday, PCPS had received 1,538 applications for 2,000 spots.

The application process has changed this year after complaints last year about the process. There is a new video tutorial to help parents on the district’s website and applicants are receiving a personal phone call from the Early Learning office to ensure students are enrolled in the best program for them.

“We have not received the negative on social media that we did last year with the changes,” said Lori Allen, senior director of PCPS Preschool Programs. “We’ve done a better job of helping parents understand how the changes are being implemented this year. The personal phone calls have been extremely well received. They just want to talk to somebody about their baby and so that has gone over very, very well.”

How to apply

To apply, parents will need to upload the following:

  • Florida Certificate of Eligibility VPK – signed and dated for all 4-year-olds. This document is not needed for 3-year-olds.
  • Official birth certificate from the state (NOT a hospital record)
  • Photo ID of enrolling parent
  • Two proofs of address

Parents who need to apply for a VPK Certificate of Eligibility can visit the Family Portal: https://familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com/Account/Login/

At a meeting on Tuesday, School Board member Kay Fields asked about efforts to make the application process accessible to all.

“What if a parent doesn’t have access to a computer or not really have the knowledge to use a computer?” Fields asked.

“If they aren’t able to complete it electronically themselves, they can set an appointment to come into school and our staff member will do it with them or they can do it over the phone with one of our staff members, as well. Wherever they’re comfortable with,” Allen said.

PCPS officials said each class has low student-to-teacher ratios and is staffed by highly qualified instructors with appropriate degrees and Florida Department of Education and Department of Children and Families certifications.

Instructors direct “activities and provide consistent daily routines that will offer children opportunities for exploration and learning. Our instructors use research-based techniques to support students’ socialization and language growth. We promote good health and safety habits with consistent supervision and maintain high program standards.”

Five early-learning programs offered

There are five programs at Polk County Public Schools for early learners.

Head Start for 3- and 4-year-olds — 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 a significant emphasis is placed on parental involvement. Head Start is currently offered at 26 sites and serves 942 students throughout Polk County.

Voluntary PreK for 4 year olds — a free statewide program for all 4-year-old children, regardless of income. Children must be four years old on or before Sept. 1 of the enrolled school year to be eligible. Parents must submit the child’s VPK Certificate of Eligibility, issued by the State of Florida with Polk County Schools’ PreK application. VPK is currently offered at 22 sites throughout Polk County and serves approximately 550 students.

Title I PreK for 4 year olds — a federally funded program residing in select Title 1 school zones. Parents must submit the child’s VPK Certificate of Eligibility, issued by the State of Florida, with Polk County Public Schools’ PK application. Title 1 PK is currently offered at 22 sites throughout Polk County and serves 472 students.

Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Prekindergarten — services are provided to children from 3-5 years of age who meet the criteria for any of the following disabilities as defined by the Florida Department of Education and in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA): developmental delay, language impairment, Autism Spectrum Disorder, deaf or hard of hearing, dual-sensory impairment, intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, traumatic brain injury, speech impairment, visual impairment.

Campus KidCare — a before/after school enrichment program offered through a partnership between Polk County Public Schools and local childcare providers. The programs are housed at several elementary school sites and serve elementary-aged children.

Allen and Karie Barquin, the director of Preschool Programs, said they are learning about innovative ways to deal with funding the programs that will allow them to spread the money across more classrooms by making every classroom inclusive with Head Start, ESE and Title I students.

“We’ve moved away from preschool programs and dividing it by funding and we’ve now moved to early childhood learning,” said Lori Allen. “We’re wanting to braid our funds together so we can use our money better. When we’re talking about braiding money, we’re looking at the funding of the staff, not the kids.”

The pair explained they visited the school district in Toledo, Ohio, to see how they handle their early learning programs.

The district currently has 108 early learning classrooms on 64 elementary school campus – about a dozen more classes than last year — and 2,000 seats available. That’s space for an additional 300 students compared to last year.

“We would love to grow faster, more bigger, but the reality is is that we have to take it slow in order to ensure that we have the infrastructure, the space and, more importantly, the teachers to build those classrooms,” Allen said.

Statewide testing begins in the third grade. Students scoring a 1 or 2 out of 5 on a reading assessment are considered below grade level and given remediation.  But Heid said he doesn’t want to wait until the third grade to help lift students’ grades.

“We do have 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.

Early learning is linked to later literacy

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, the percentage of Florida’s 14.8 million people aged 16 to 74 years old who were considered literate between 2013 and 2017 was 42%. The national average is 46%. In Polk County, that number drops to 34%. The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed 12,330 U.S. adults ages 16 to 74 for this study that gauges the literacy and numerical understanding in in all 50 states and all 3,141 U.S. counties.

According to the Florida Literacy Coalition, “there is a strong correlation between literacy and poverty. Of the 10 Florida counties with the lowest PIAAC adult literacy scores, eight are also counted among the 10 poorest counties, as measured by residents living below 150% in poverty.” Polk County’s literacy rate is 42 out of 67 counties. And, the FLC states, Florida has the third lowest adult literacy level of all 50 states.

“Literacy is the gatekeeper to education, financial stability, health, relationships, and empowerment,” FLC officials state on its website. “It is the foundation of self-sufficiency and lifelong success. On the other hand, a lack of functional literacy contributes to just about all social and economic problems in our society. For the functionally illiterate, everyday tasks present real problems.” 

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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 kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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