Three years into an ambitious expansion of pre-kindergarten programs, administrators in the St. Johns County School District say they’re already seeing the investment pay off in students better prepared for the increased rigors of kindergarten.
And those outcomes offer another ROI.
“For every one dollar you spend on early childhood education, statistics show you save $17 on remedial services later on,” said Brian McElhone, the district’s director of early childhood services. “Getting kids early on is more cost-effective than trying to catch someone up in ninth grade.
“So we want to support them as early as we can, and the district has made that its philosophy.”
Since 2015, the SJCSD has doubled its enrollment, capacity and resources for early learning. It has also increased access to the program, adding six more teachers, six more teaching assistants and six more classrooms at Osceola, Webster and Crookshank elementary schools, in addition to other campuses where the district already offers pre-k.
The district also expanded its hours of instruction to five days a week — a full, seven-hour day if a parent opts for it — and summer programs, as well.
Over the last three years, pre-k enrollment has gone from 160 in 2015-16, to 302 in 2017-18, with dozens more students on a waiting list.
Why the increased priority?
The district, led by then-Superintendent Jospeph Joyner along with the school board, communicated concerns about kindergarten readiness in the district, recognizing that the foundation for a high-quality education begins in the first few years of a child’s life. With St. Johns County Schools at the top of the pack statewide in nearly every assessment measure by the Florida Department of Education, school officials began to realize that one area they might be able to improve at was pre-k services to children ages 3 and 4.
Students that age qualify for either Head Start, a federally-funded program, or Voluntary Pre-K, which is footed by the state. Florida was one of the first states in the country to offer free pre-kindergarten classes for children who turn 4 by Sept. 1 of that school year under VPK, which is offered at both public and private facilities. An additional program, Exceptional Student Education, caters to preschoolers assessed as having cognitive and/or developmental issues.
The district has picked up the bill for the additional teachers, paraprofessionals and classroom space it has allotted to grow its early child services over the past few years.
Tina Waldrop, principal of Osceola Elementary School, which has blended classrooms for young students who fall under all these categories, has seen the impact the programs can have.
“Typically, there is a big transition for kids coming from day care or home care versus having that structured pre-k classroom environment,” said Waldrop. “We see some students that have no pre-academic skills and by kindergarten we have to spend a lot of time trying to fill in some of those fundamental gaps.”
Lindsey Studivant, a pre-k teacher at Osceola, said that whether it’s the incorporation of technology like personal tablets or good-old fashioned finger painting, the classroom experience is essential to both social and academic development for preschoolers.
“I have seen such progress with kids in just one year,” said Studivant, ” I had one girl who didn’t speak at age 3. Her language skills are amazing now.”
Mary Alice Hayes is the director of FLY, a program through INK!, the school district’s education enrichment foundation. FLY — which stands for Five Learning Years — provides volunteer literacy coaches that go into Pre-K classsrooms at half a dozen schools across the county. Currently, 300 students in the district are served by the program.
Students identified as in need of reading intervention are placed in small groups and receive that extra attention in the course of the school day. Tutors use the BrightStart!, curriculum developed by Nemours Children’s Health System, which Waldrop calls “just another layer” in kindergarten preparedness.
Hayes said that since the district and its community partners have stepped up their early childhood services, the academic screenings that FLY does twice a year have continued to show postive results, with a 45 percent improvement rate on average.
“Data shows that early intervention is proven to work,” said McElhone. “If you’re not on grade level by first grade, the likelihood of you catching up and being ready to graduate is that much less.”
The district is also focusing on outreach to communities in St. Johns County, like Hastings and West Augustine, where parents may either not be aware of the options to their preschoolers, and that many of them are free. Hayes has also started afternoon and summer camp programs for young learners at the Woodlawn Terrace Apartments in St. Augustine.
Programs like those offered through the Early Learning Coalition of North Florida also provide partial scholarships for children who meet at-risk or low-income requirements. The program is funded through the United Way of Northeast Florida.
But getting parents to buy into the importance of pre-k is a just as important as any cost of the program, Hayes said.
“Sometimes, there’s just not that motivation factor, and it’s an ongoing struggle,” said Hayes.
For Rebecca Keffer, the VPK program in St. Johns County was a blessing.
“In Tennessee, where we lived before, not all 4-year-olds could attend VPK,” said Keffer, who moved to St. Augustine three years ago.
Keffer’s son, Elijah, is now thriving in kindergarten, according to his mother.
“I largely attribute that to his teacher meeting his needs, especially concentrating on his letters and sounds, and his behavior; he’s now able to focus on everything much better,” Keffer said.
Keffer said that early intervention was not available to her two older children and she can see the difference.
McElhone said St. Johns County school officials have made it abundantly clear to him that the district will only continue to emphasize and grow its services to this young learning population.
“I think we are ahead of the curve in the state,” said Waldrop. “And I think with the growth of St. Johns County, it’s just going to be a natural increase in this area.”