SEBRING - The flash card Michelle Young held up read "are," a new word spelled out for her small group of 4-year-olds in voluntary prekindergarten (VPK).
"You 'are' learning a lot today," Young told the children.
Prompted to use the word in a sentence, one student responded, "You 'are' my teacher."
A constitutional amendment passed by Florida's voters in 2002 required a voluntary prekindergarten program, with no cost to parents, for all 4-year-olds to prepare them for kindergarten and build the foundation for their educational success.
Young has been a VPK teacher at Busy Kids Creative Learning Center in Sebring since the VPK program started in the 2005-06 school year.
Busy Kids is one of Highlands County's 40 VPK providers listed with the Florida's Office of Early Learning, which oversees VPK.
Parents with students currently attending Busy Kids tout the VPK program.
Renee Cohen said VPK helped her first daughter, Kayla, for two reasons - it helped her get into the advanced academics program at the Kindergarten Learning Center because she was well prepared for the testing to be accepted into the program.
Secondly, VPK helped her daughter emotionally versus just being at home.
Now Cohen's second child, Alana, is attending VPK.
Michelle Cheri said her daughter, Grace, was learning to put sentences together by reading.
It definitely gets them prepared for kindergarten, she said.
Before VPK, kindergarten used to be just a social class, Cheri said.
Eric Zwayer said VPK has been very beneficial for his daughter, Molly Jane.
"We do a lot of instruction at home, too, but she has definitely picked up a lot at VPK as well," he said. "We knew a lot of our friends who put their children in VPK and family who put their children in VPK and all have benefited from it. So we thought we would do the same, and we are very pleased with the program up to this point."
Over the years VPK has adapted to the changes in kindergarten, said Busy Kids owner and VPK teacher Anne Lang.
When VPK started there weren't as many expectations for children when they entered kindergarten as there are now, she said.
"Over the past few years we have really had to hone in on specific skills," Lang said.
For example, the performance standards have changed for math, she said. There were general concepts, but now there are specific benchmarks related to math. Also, a geography section has been added to the VPK curriculum.
Meanwhile, state VPK funding has gone down, Lang said.
"We actually make less per hour than when we first started," she said. "So they increased the requirements but did not increase the funding."
Having served as the principal of the Kindergarten Learning Center for many years, Director of Elementary Programs Andrew Lethbridge, has seen many kindergartners in the classroom.
He is on the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Florida's Heartland, which oversees the VPK programs in Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties.
Lethbridge believes that the VPK program helps tremendously.
"We know through research that early intervention is essential," he said. "I believe many children have been served well and are ready to start kindergarten through the efforts of the local VPK providers working together with the ELC.
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About 80 percent of all Florida 4-year-olds attend VPK, according to the Florida Office of Early Learning.
In 2011-12, 79 percent of children who finished VPK were ready for kindergarten, but only 55 percent of children who didn't go to VPK were kindergarten ready.
But, state data also shows nearly 40 percent of Highlands County's VPK providers are considered "low performing."
The providers are evaluated according to their "readiness rate," which is the percentage of students who are ready for kindergarten according to assessment testing.
A VPK provider is labeled "low performing" if less than 70 percent of its children are ready for kindergarten.
Data for 2011-12 showed that the readiness rates for Highlands County's 40 VPK providers ranged from 28 percent to 100 percent.
Along with the wide range in the readiness rates, the county's VPK providers have a wide range in the number of students they serve. There were 12 providers with fewer than 10 children in the readiness-rate calculation, while five providers had more than 30 students who were tested for the readiness rate.
Lethbridge commented on the readiness rates.
"With any data, I believe it is important to look at it over time, which I would call trend data, and not in isolation for one year," he said. The Early Learning Coalition does monitor the readiness results of the kindergarten screening test quickly and thoroughly, he said.
The first response is to provide support and training for a specific provider that is not demonstrating the required readiness rates for their students, Lethbridge said. The majority of the time, by working together, the readiness rate goal can be met, he said.
In some cases the Early Learning Coalition has ended agreements with certain providers that were unable to show the required results, he noted. Some of the locations serve only a few children, while others could serve upward of 100 children or more. For locations that serve only a few students, the outcome of just one or two students can determine the overall success of the location.
Lethbridge commented on a common criticism of the Florida VPK program - teachers are not required to have a college degree.
"Being an education major, I would always argue that education is important," he said. "That being said, even in our own school district, I have seen outstanding 'teachers' who work as paraprofessionals or other roles that do not have a degree."
Lethbridge stressed that VPK is one tool that parents can utilize to assist getting their child ready for kindergarten.
Parents need to have a plan to get their child ready, he said. Kindergarten has changed dramatically from the time that they went to school. It is very academic and there are high expectations as to what students need to accomplish.
Gov. Rick Scott's proposed 2014-15 budget includes an increase of $929,000 for VPK, raising the base student allocation from $2,383 to $2,483 per child in the school-year program and from $2,026 to $2,126 for children in the summer programs.
A news release called it the largest increase in VPK funding in 10 years.
Highlands County had 936 children in the 2011-12 school year VPK program. Parents can choose to have their children attend either a school year or summer VPK program.
The school-year VPK program provides 540 hours of instruction with class sizes of no more than 20 children. The summer program includes 300 instructional hours and class sizes no larger than 12 students.