The Strategic Plan for the School District of Lee County, Envision 2030 provides a blueprint through the next decade to ensure that every student achieves not only academic success but also social-emotional realization. A critical pillar of the plan is a pledge to Increase Kindergarten Readiness. Increasing a child’s readiness to learn is an essential foundation for all that follows.
In the 2019-2020 school year just 41% of SDLC students were identified as “prepared for kindergarten” (as measured by a scaled score of 500 or above on the Florida Early Learning Assessment). This kindergarten readiness rate was the lowest of the forty largest school districts in the state. A contributing factor to this rate is that of the ten largest Florida counties, Lee County has the second highest incidence of child poverty. The impact of early childhood education can be especially strong for disadvantaged children — kids who might otherwise have additional challenges to face in the school years ahead.
Envision 2030 sets forth a goal of increasing local enrollment in Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK), a free educational program that prepares 4-year olds for kindergarten. The SDLC currently serves pre-kindergarten children at eighteen District VPK centers and partners with five additional VPK Preferred Providers. A short term Envision 2030 goal is to increase PreK capacity by 200 seats by the end of FY21 and to raise the kindergarten readiness rate to 50%.To this end, the James Stephens PreK Center will open in January 2021 with a 13 classroom capacity. By 2030, the District hopes to have two-thirds of its kindergarten students participating in District affiliated PreK programs.
But the commendable aims of Envision 2030 are just a portion of the work ahead to provide Lee County children with the tools that they need to succeed in life. Although the District is exploring opportunities to expand high-quality early childhood education programs, this endeavor “will take a village” to achieve. The District currently serves 77 children in Early Head Start (ages 0 to 30 months). Early Head Start, like Head Start, is a free federally funded program designed to promote school readiness for children from low-income families. The program is particularly effective because it supports parents in their roles as children’s first teachers. As a result of funding shortfalls, however, Lee County enrollment reflects just a fraction of the number of local children who qualify for the program. Unfortunately, there are limited options for this group of children if they are unable to access developmental enrichment elsewhere.
A child’s brain attains 90% of its growth by age five. Children who face adversity in their first years of life are more at risk for experiencing lifelong effects from toxic stress. Investing public funding in early childhood education programs creates upward mobility through opportunity rather than via marginally successful programs later in life. Access to books, talking, singing, and storytelling provides rich language experiences that enhance vocabulary development (vocabulary gaps begin as early as 18 months). Social skills (the ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships) and positive emotional development (the ability to express, recognize, and manage emotions) also evolve during this time. Of course, healthy children – those who have received proper nutrition and medical care – are more equipped to learn.
An investment in high-quality early education programs, especially for underserved children, pays dividends for many years. The SDLC is making valuable strides with Envision 2030’s VPK expansion. Now it is time for state and local government to step up to provide adequate funding to serve younger disadvantaged children and their families. Schools can’t do it alone!
Betsy Vaughn is a member of the Lee County School Board. She represents District 6.