Getting ready for kindergarten: Community effort emerges in Wimauma

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On average 78 percent statewide take advantage of some form of volunteer pre-kindergarten. Those who don’t may find themselves behind, before they start kindergarten.

In Wimauma, a blended community where Spanish is often the first language, early learning is especially important. Which is why the summer VPK was offered there again this year, the first time since 2009. Some 58 participated in the program, in migrant and regular tracks at either Wimauma or Reddick elementaries, with the last class wrapping up July 26.

Creating early learning opportunities was one of the goals of a coalition of community leaders and concerned citizens working to improve the way of life in Wimauma, a community in transition as developers build subdivisions in Hillsborough County’s South Shore.

“Any experience that the child has away from home, away from mom, interacting with children, is going to help them make the transition [to kindergarten] more easily,” says Lisa Black, kindergarten supervisor for Hillsborough County’s public schools.

Black is passionate about how pre-school can benefit young children. “I know there’s lot of them out there,” she says, gesturing toward the neighborhood surrounding Wimauma’s Reddick Elementary.“They should be here.”

Pre-K is more than fun and games

When asked what they like about pre-K, a youngster may say it’s fun. But although they may be dancing, or coloring pictures or listening to stories, there’s a lot more going on than fun and games. The curriculum includes math, reading, writing and science, including investigating and journal writing.

For 5-year-olds like Isabel Lopez-Gomez, who attended Reddick VPK this summer, it was important to learn the alphabet and how to count before starting kindergarten. 

“It’s a big help for us parents,” says her mom, restaurant worker Maria Gomez. “They’ve been learning a lot.”

More parents need to be involved, she says. “When I found out about the program, a lot of people didn’t know about it,” Gomez says. “Some don’t think it’s that important.”

The program is designed to build a foundation for kindergarten. 

“The push is on to get our kids ready to read and eventually graduate,” says LeChelle DeVeaux-Garnes, a Reddick summer VPK teacher who teaches kindergarten at Lamb Elementary in Progress Village during the school year.
“A lot of our kiddos needed initial letter and number knowledge. We had to work on that with them,” says Holly Lampo, another summer VPK teacher at Reddick, who normally teaches at Lamb. “The kids made a lot of growth this summer.”

In addition to academics, the VPK begins building social skills and helps them develop a new routine.

“It was so good,” adds Brenda McLendon, who taught the migrant summer VPK track at Reddick. “They gave us so many resources.”

A bilingual teacher, she uses her Spanish when it helps her teach. 

“We show them. We tell them, then we ask them to repeat it if they still don’t know it,” she explains. “Two thirds of them knew some English. Still, the vocabulary is not there.”

The migrant VPK students, who were enrolled for a 16-day session spanning four weeks, spent 45 minutes in the computer lab every day, which was really important for those with no computers at home.

“The kindergarten students are ready to go to kindergarten, and I feel very good about that,” she adds.

Although 5-year-olds were given preference, they took 3-year-olds when the older ones didn’t come, possibly because their parents were picking farm crops elsewhere. 

“We have the program and they need it anyway,” McLendon says.
A community effort

As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. So VPK in Wimauma was a community effort. Volunteers came by and read to the children and even met one-on-one with some of the students headed for kindergarten August 10.

“It takes a lot of coordination, but if people are willing, it makes it so much easier,” McLendon says. “It’s nice to have different experiences. They really liked it.”

The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, a convener in the coalition working on positive change in Wimauma, provided a Scholastic “book pack” of five kindergarten level books. Thanks to its support, the families also were able to sign up for Tembo Education’s parent/student learning engagement text program.

“This program sends an age-appropriate and simple learning activity via text messages to parents every day for one year. It will be made available in English and Spanish,” Kiernan says. “We are looking into how to do some family engagement around this program, as well.”

The foundation also supported visits by Bess The Book Bus, which gave away books, and Giving Tree Music’s Drum Circle.

The heart of the matter

While young children often can pick up a language easily, unless there is a translator it can be difficult for children without English language skills to learn in a classroom setting. 

“If a student is not really comfortable understanding directions, it becomes difficult for them to catch on,” says Dr. Nirjhar Shah, who co-owns a Best in Class franchise in New Tampa.

Schools expect the children to have some exposure to the alphabet and words at the pre-k level, he says.

“At kindergarten level, it becomes very challenging to pick all those things up. A majority have gone through pre-k, where they were exposed to that stuff,” he says.

It becomes a challenge for students who have not, and that challenge will only increase the farther behind the child becomes. It may not be long before they have to repeat a grade in an attempt to catch up.

The school district’s VPK is a perfect start for students because it’s free and students can become accustomed to being in a group, Shah says.

“If they need extra supplemental help, then a program like ours can provide them with that,” he asserts.

At the heart of the matter is the student’s ability to understand what is being spoken or read. When their vocabulary is small, so is their comprehension. Janet Caruthers, a teacher for 34 years, saw that in the classroom.

“The schools that are in these high poverty areas, the pre-k and Head Start, they need to really have a strong focus on developing vocabulary, foundational vocabulary,” says Caruthers, who worked at Wimauma Elementary from 2005 to 2012. “Not the wow words, like scrumptious. Kids love learning words like that. What they really need to know is that a dog has a paw instead of a foot.”

What the children learn before they come to school makes a big difference. 

“Some children learn to read effortlessly. Of course those are the ones that have been read to at home,” says Caruthers, a retired academic interventional specialist who worked with struggling kindergarten and first-graders. “A lot of the students who grow up in poverty, the parents don’t really understand to do that.”

Caruthers, who provides practical tips on her websites, Make Reading First, and Vocabulary Builders believes poor vocabulary translates into lower-than-grade-level reading scores in elementary school. 

“The children that go to school with large vocabularies already can learn like eight [new] words a day, but the children that come with a deficit in their language, they’re only able to learn about two to three words a day,” Caruthers explains. “Every single day this gap widens.”

Typically, students in the lower quartile only learn 500 to 600 words per year, says Caruthers, author of The Illustrated Dictionary of Everyday Things.

“In order to close the gap, they’d have to learn twice that many words,” she says. “Then by the third grade testing time, they would score like everybody else.”

Carlos Irizarry, Lead Pastor of Wholesome Church, has seen the problem firsthand in his ministry work in the Wimauma community. 

“Under-educated” parents may not send their children to pre-school, so when they attend kindergarten they are already behind, he says. “The pack is not going to wait for them.”

What lies ahead

Wholesome, which plans to open a pre-school early next year with a bilingual staff, has been developing its curriculum -- with the goal of teaching parents to teach their children. 

“We believe in helping the parents help the kids,” he says.

Jackie Brown, a Wimauma CDC board member, is expecting to open a childcare center in mid-August after successfully completing a training program offered by Enterprising Latinas.
Enterprising Latinas Founder and CEO Liz Gutierrez says she is planning to offer a second 40-hour course to train childcare workers, hopefully in October. Thirty completed the program she started in January.

“When we talk to women about this opportunity, we were very clear that what they were becoming were educators, educators of young children at home,” Gutierrez explains.

With the summer VPK behind them, educators and community leaders concerned about early learning in Wimauma are continuing to look for ways to boost the children’s chances of success.
“There were a lot of good things that we did as a group. There were a lot of lessons learned,” Black says. “I would absolutely try again next year to have both of these sites open. Now we have a framework to go into next year with.”

The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay is continuing conversations about education in Wimauma. 

“I think we have a lot of hope that some really great things are going to come out of this,” says Wilma Norton, VP for marketing and communications.

Community leaders and citizens continue to meet to talk about how to bring positive change to Wimauma. After a July 27 meeting, Kiernan points out enthusiasm is high. “The spirit of partnership is continuing to grow,” he says. “More and more things look like they’re possible.”

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune