Revival of summer pre-K program in Wimauma to help bridge learning gap

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Community leaders, parents and educators In Wimauma, an increasingly diverse community in the South Shore area of Hillsborough County that is home to thousands of migrant farm workers and other low-income families, are concerned about a shortage of early learning opportunities. 

Recognizing the learning gap created when parents don’t read to their children or rarely speak English at home, for example, educators are working to bridge the gap through public and private education programs.

So this summer, children in Wimauma will be able to attend a free, Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, says Lisa Black, Kindergarten Supervisor with Hillsborough County public schools. Parents can register online for the program, administered by ELCHC; the application also is available in Spanish.

The school district is reimbursed $2,080 in state funding, through ELCHC, for each child that completes the program. It runs from June 5 through July 26, Mondays through Thursdays, at Wimauma and Reddick Elementary schools.

The VPK program -- which includes a special migrant track at Reddick Elementary -- is open to children who will start kindergarten in fall 2017, Black says. They must be age 5 by September 1 and not have already attended a VPK program.

The classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and feature certified teachers, a 12-to-1 teacher ratio, and free breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack.

The summer program, which has not been available in Wimauma for the last few years, is expecting to serve some 120 in Wimauma, 24 in the migrant track, Black says.

More information is available at the VPK hotline at 813-272-4840.

“Parents will need a working email address. Parents should note that, at the end to the application, they are asked to upload proof of residence and proof of birth,” Black says. “If they need assistance with this process, they can bring these documents to the school site they will be attending.”

She recommends calling ahead to make sure someone will be there to provide help.

The coalition will send parents an email regarding the status of the application. “It will either state that the Certificate of Eligibility is ready for them to print or that they need to upload alternative documentation,” Black says. “In either case, the parent will go back to the portal where they completed the application to receive and print their certificate or to upload other documentation.”

VPK is available during the year at Reddick and Cypress Creek Elementary schools, but there are only eight seats at each school, she says.

Why pre-K is so important

Early childhood learning programs that target disadvantaged children pay off long-term, returning some 13.7 percent annually on the investment, a new study says.

The study from the University of Chicago’s Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group compares two very similar childhood programs in North Carolina and tracks the benefits on participants through their mid-30s.

“There are benefits for participants in terms of reduced crime, gains in life-cycle labor income, reduced special education costs and enhanced educational attainment,” say the study authors Jorge Garcia, James Heckman, Duncan Leaf and Maria Prados in their December 2016 working paper.

Educators elsewhere are recognizing the importance of early learning experiences as well. Harvard University scientists have found these experiences affect our brains -- and future learning, behavior and health. The reason? They develop the brain architecture that serves as the foundation for our future.

Here in Hillsborough County at the nonprofit Early Learning Coalition, CEO Steve Knobl is working to mitigate long-term problems from lack of school readiness. 

“With high quality early learning experiences, children who are school ready, have a greater likelihood of graduating from high school and growing into productive citizens and valuable employees,” says Knobl. “The long–term impact of early learning depends entirely on quality.”

In low-income areas, and in families where English isn’t spoken or spoken rarely, children may lack those quality experiences. In the critical 0 to 3 age bracket, there may be a disconnect.

“A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to 3 and produces 700 new neural connections every second. During this period of time, a child’s brain is more open to learning and enriching influences,” he says. “On the negative side, it also means that a young child’s brain is more vulnerable to developmental problems should their environment not provide rich, nurturing experiences.”

RCMA-run VPK programs

The Redland Christian Migrant Association currently runs five VPK programs in Wimauma from December through May, says Teresa Julian, the RCMA’s Program Coordinator in the Wimauma/Ruskin area. The program serves 77 on a budget of $188,733.

“There’s still more children in the Wimauma area that we are currently not able to serve,” she says. “We have a waiting list.”

The RCMA has been offering VPK since the program started in 2005 in areas across the state.

In Wimauma, where a large majority of children speak Spanish or an indigenous language from Mexico or Guatemala, many are learning English.

“They’re assimilating from a migrant agricultural background. It’s hard labor. Sometimes those children need that extra help,” she says. “The parents need a little bit of information on things they can do at their home to help promote that learning.”

When the parents can’t read English, they can teach the parents how to use pictures in the book to tell the story, she explains. The parenting curriculum Opening Doors, or Abriendo Puertas, teaches parents how to advocate for their children.

The feedback they’re getting from the families indicates their efforts are paying off. “The parents have come back and said they were really happy that their children attended our program,” she says.

Local Head Start program

More help is available through the federally funded Head Start program, which is working to “level the playing field” whenever children may not be able to develop the life skills they need at home, says Evelyn McFadden, Head Start supervisor for Hillsborough County public schools.

In Hillsborough County, Head Start helps some 1,812 children in 92 classrooms annually on a budget of approximately $13 million. They work inside and outside of the classroom, sometimes assisting families to overcome obstacles to a child’s participation in the program. 

Head Start, which focuses on families that are in some way needy when the child is 3 or 4, is enrolling students for next year throughout Hillsborough. More information is available by calling 813-740-7870 and asking for Family Services.

“The hope for Head Start is that our families are self sufficient by the time they finish the program,” McFadden says.

The program offers intensive language, literacy, math, and science instruction, plus field trips the children otherwise wouldn’t experience. 

“Most importantly, it’s the social, emotional skills that are built. They now know how to get along with each other, they know how to use their words instead of fighting,” she says.

The Waterford curriculum it uses has been having a positive impact on students, particularly young students in most need, she says.

There is a home program called Smart Start available, but parents would need a computer where the child can use his school identification number, she says.

For children who have been in Wimauma Head Start programs, the summer VPK program can help “lessen the gap before they hit kindergarten,” McFadden says.

“With the VPK … they’re able to attend a program that we know helps them,” McFadden adds. “If they’re not in school over the summer, sometimes they forget.”

Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Eakins sees pre-school readiness as a game changer that lets kindergarten through 12th grade teachers focus on building strengths instead of eradicating deficits.

When children in need don’t qualify for Head Start, are placed on waiting lists, or can’t get help because of a shortage of pre-k learning programs, there’s a learning gap. “Many of those students are not as prepared. We spend a lot of time trying to catch them up,” he says.

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