TAMPA, Fla. — Concerns are growing that Florida's youngest learners will not be prepared to start school as the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program, or VPK, has seen a dramatic drop in enrollment.
Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program or VPK is a free educational program that prepares 4-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond. Children must live in Florida and be four on or before September 1 of the school year they enroll. Parents can choose from private child care centers or public schools and school-year or summer programs. Parents of 4-year-olds with special needs have an option outside the classroom setting
In past years, the number of Hillsborough County kids enrolled for summer and fall VPK courses has grown as high as 12,000 children. But this year, the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County said numbers are closer to 8,000.
In Pinellas County, numbers have dropped by 25% since last year. Statewide, educators said there has been a drop of 22% in VPK enrollment.
Florida's VPK program helps children build on what they may have learned in preschool and gives them skills needed to enter kindergarten. The program is free to all four and 5-year-old children, regardless of income.
"Their preparedness for the kindergarten readiness is so much higher than the child that does not go," said Abigail Perez with the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Across Florida, early childhood providers have been reaching out to families, working to get them signed up for VPK. This is through social media campaigns and targeted outreach through text and phone calls to families who have a VPK certificate but have not used it.
After a dip in VPK enrollment last year, likely because of the pandemic, educators say Florida kids are already feeling the effects.
The most recent Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener found around 43% of kindergarten students in classes now are not actually ready for kindergarten.
To try and fix this problem, the ELC Hillsborough is working with Hillsborough County Schools, Head Start and the Kindergarten Transition Initiative to get resources to those families.
VPK Enrollment is still open for the Summer and Fall programs in 2021. Sign up here.