ST. PETERSBURG – The number of low-income parents in Pinellas County not taking advantage of Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) for their children has become a concern for the CEO of Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County (ELC), Lindsay Carson.
Carson wants to get the word out as much as possible to parents with children under the age of five about the benefits of VPK, and how the ELC can help children from low-income families get enrolled for free.
ELC administers Florida’s Free Voluntary Prekindergarten Program for four years olds. The only qualifications are that your child be a Florida resident and four years old by Sept. 1. There are benefits from VPK that a child will take with them throughout his or her life.
There’s a big difference in the social and emotional skills of children who attend VPK and those who do not. VPK children go into kindergarten with the advantage of already having problem solving, emotional and social skills. Many children who do not attend the program are lacking those skills, which create a larger problem for the child when entering kindergarten.
Children are learning the difference between right and wrong at the ages of three and four, and being in VPK helps strengthen and further this knowledge. Developing social and emotional skills at these ages are critical. These skills help them self-regulate not only with emotions, but teach them how to pay attention and sit still.
Not every child is born into a family that teaches these skills, but thankfully for these children this is where VPK steps in and does the job. Carson is very passionate about getting as many Pinellas County children as possible enrolled.
“When you have a child who has never been in school before–never been in a formal environment–and they walk into kindergarten…it [is] terrifying for them because they’re not eased into it sometimes,” said Carson who experienced this firsthand when she taught kindergarten in the Orlando area.
“They can’t help it, and they don’t know how to sit in a chair or stand in line, and they don’t understand the concept of you have to wait your turn before you get to the paint easel. A lot of those basic skills they just don’t necessarily have, but by participating in VPK they build that foundation,” she averred.
Every child in Florida takes the Florida Kindergartener Readiness Screener upon entering kindergarten, and the test results have shown that children who were enrolled in VPK are leaps and bounds over the children who did not participate in the program.
ELC helps send children to qualified childcare facilities by aiding low-income families with tuition to daycares such as Imagination Station, who has been contracted with them for 12 years.
Located at 2200 33rd St. S, St. Petersburg, Imagination Station has a maximum capacity of 18 VPK students per year, but there are many contracted facilities throughout Pinellas County that have unlimited space.
Executive Director of Imagination Station, Jackie Lang, has seen throughout the years the success VPK has had on children. “I’ve had an opportunity to work on both sides, in public schools and private sectors such as this one, and being in the public school you can definitely recognize the students that have not had the exposure of an educational environment prior to coming into kindergarten,” said Lang.
Social skills are one of the biggest benefits from VPK that Lang has noticed in her students. Some children attending VPK don’t know their real name because they are used to being addressed by a nickname. Lang and her co-workers teach them their real name, and explain the difference between a nickname and given name so they can know who they are.
“Just being able to sit through a story and listen are some of the skills they already need to have when they start kindergarten. If they’re not ready for that then that’s something you actually have to mold and work with them,” said Lang.
Lang and teachers at many VPK centers make learning fun for the children. She explained the most rewarding part of her job is when she sees and works with students who are behaviorally challenged develop social and emotional skills.
They do three assessments throughout the school year, which helps measure their foundation skills, and shows Lang and her staff which students needs what particular instruction.
Carson and Lang encourage all parents to look into VPK for the lifelong benefits of their children, and if funding is a problem, contact ELC at (727) 548-1439 or
Parents can also register their child for VPK on www.elcpinellas.net. There is a full staff at the ELC willing to guide parents through the enrollment procedure of VPK, and help find funding through scholarships, qualifications such as low-income or just by a child simply being a Florida resident.
Carson encourages parents to choose quality programs for their children during the VPK enrollment. The birth certificate of a child is a required document for registration, and if the child’s birth certificate is missing, log onto pinellas.floridahealth.gov/certificates/birth/index.html to order it.
The ELC encourages the community to spread the word about Florida’s free VPK program for four year olds so that the children of Pinellas County can start early in life with solid foundation skills instead of struggling to develop them at a much later age.