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Shannon Nickinson: Early Education Summit's goal is tax money to create Escambia Children's Services Council

They are a bright bunch, the class of 2028.

The students in Emily Ellis’ VPK class at Lincoln Park Primary School are as warm and bubbly as any crop of 4- and 5-year-olds you are likely to meet, quick with a hug and big on teamwork as they work to “keep the Earth clean” raking dead leaves and checking on the new Earth Day planter boxes.

Making sure they are excited about learning and prepared for kindergarten next year is more than Ellis’ job. It is critical to the success of the entire Pensacola community.

In a county where 66.2 percent of last year’s kindergarteners were considered ready for kindergarten based on state evaluation standards, their success in the future is ours.

That is why Lincoln Park’s Principal Cassandra Smith has worked hard to make professional development an important part of her VPK – Voluntary Prekindergarten – teachers’ work. Smith has five pre-K classes at her school of just under 200 students.

“They actually are teaching,” Smith says. “When I came last year, everybody was just doing their own thing. I immediately changed that. They have a professional learning community.”

Lincoln Park’s VPK teachers meet twice a week after school – on Tuesdays to review their lesson plans for the coming week, and on another day to continue to build those plans. Smith says they share ideas, strategies and successes.

“When they meet, they have to talk about where they are in the curriculum and they have to bring ideas to the table,” Smith says. “To get teachers outside of their box and get them in a more collaborative model, I started this. And it was rough for them last year because that was not something they were used to. This year, they do it more naturally.”

Professionalizing early education is part of Bruce Watson’s mission at the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County. The coalition oversees funding for both the School Readiness program and VPK programs in the county.

“In the practical execution of it, the net result is a lot of providers have been caretakers in a safe environment, without a lot of emphasis on the educational aspect,” Watson says.

That is going to have to change, as the state moves to a ratings system for VPK providers and conversations about improving the public education system focus more and more on the early years.

That’s why Watson is convening the third annual Early Education Summit on May 20.

Watson, a helicopter pilot and former flight instructor at Whiting Field Naval Air Station, wants Pensacola’s business leaders, elected officials and social movers to leave the meeting at the Gulf Power building with the scales off their eyes.

“I want to make a bunch of converts and have them walking out demanding a referendum that we help our children,” he says. “I’m planting a seed I hope that comes to fruition in the next two or three years.”

That seed is the creation of a Children’s Service Council. The eight existing councils in Florida are funded by a portion of the millage rate or of sales tax revenue to fund programs that benefit children.

The Coalition, which as a provider of VPK is responsible for 1,600 jobs in Escambia County, could be a recipient of that funding. But it would not be the only one, Watson says.

“Sometimes it’s health assistance, nutrition programs, a lot of agencies like ECARE (Every Child a Reader in Escambia) and other smaller groups who work with subsets of early education,” Watson says.

St. Lucie County voters renewed their funding stream for their Children’s Service Council – it provides $7.8 million – $25 per resident for 20 years, Watson says.

Watson says that there are 3,000 to 5,000 children in Escambia County who could benefit from access to early education. The waiting list for his School Readiness Program is just under 1,000 children.

“That’s the 1,000 I know of,” he says. “Last December, we cleared the wait list. We had more people apply between January and June than had applied in the previous two-and-a-half years. They just came in left and right.

“There are a lot of people out there on those margins (of the economy) and think they’re in the ballpark (of being able to qualify for the program).”

The School Readiness program offers subsidized day care for children ages 0 to 3, as long as the parent works at least 20 hours a week and makes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

“The needs of our children outweigh the capacity of what we have in place.”

And that’s why Watson believes the summit is important.

“It will be a hard sell here,” he says. “I’ve looked at the county budget. I’m about the only thing our county is paying for for our children.”

The Coalition received $230,000 in the 2011-12 budget year from the county. When commissioners instituted a 5 percent across-the-board budget cut three years ago, that took Watson’s funding to $218,500.

“I’ve yet to have any of that restored,” he says.

Watson must raise an additional $400,000 to $500,000 annually to fulfill his matching funds obligation to the state that allows federal funding to flow to the coalition through Community Development Block Grants.

“Every dollar I get from the county and United Way goes 100 percent to put a child into care. It all has to go exclusively to getting another child in a slot,” Watson says.

That means funding for professional development for child care providers, efforts to improve quality of educational instruction at centers as well as funding for things like family reading nights, designed to spur parent involvement, must come second.

The support that the coalition offers child care providers makes a difference.

So says Tammy Hicks, director of the Child Enrichment Center off Pauline Street near Cantonment.

Hicks helped start the center at her church, Gonzalez United Methodist Church, in 2005. Hicks says her center was open almost five years before they offered VPK. This year they have two classes of 20 VPK students.

“The training and the things that (the coalition) offers, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Hicks says.

Those resources included coaches who told Hicks and her staff what they needed by way of instruction, as well as things to add and materials that were available. They’ve also offered things for directors that Hicks says have been immensely helpful as she and her center developed.

As the state has implemented academic standards for VPK, Hicks says they do what they have always done, “but now we are a little more intentional about it.

“We were already teaching what the state is asking us to teach. We don’t teach to a test, but it does help us see where the kids are progressing and where they’re not.”

The faith-based program at Hicks’ center includes a Bible story of the week that kids can take home to their parents and share, as well as projects like the letter of the week. It requires children to find pictures of things that start with the letter of the week and bring them back to school.

The goal is to have the children be ready for kindergarten, where they again will be tested. Knowing how to take turns, follow directions, share with friends, hold a pencil, recite their letters and numbers by the time they leave VPK is an important step in that process.

“They are little sponges at that age, socially, academically, everything,” Hicks says.

That is how Watson will pitch the group of business and community leaders at the summit on May 20. He believes that the economic and social betterment of this community are deeply linked to the quality and availability of strong early education programs for every child.

What does he hope comes from the effort?

“That we as a community will tell our local politicians we want to apply sales tax money or millage money to helping our children,” Watson says.

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of PensacolaToday.com, a news and commentary website in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter @snickinson.com.Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

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