FORT MYERS, Fla. – In September 2017, the Lee County School District’s Board Members approved the updated Vision 2020 Plan for fulfilling their vision To Be a World-Class School System. Building on the recommendations of Education Revolution: A Theory for Action, Vision 2020 defines a specific course of action to implement key, research-based recommendations and strategies designed to achieve four overarching District Goals:

– Increase Student Achievement

– Increase Family and Community Engagement

– Increase Retention of Effective and Highly Effective Employees

– Become a Model Continuous Improvement Organization.

A major component of Goal I got underway last year thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s Community Impact Grant for early childhood education. Progress is now continuing through alignment with the FutureMakers Coalition’s Aspiration and Preparation team, which is focused on getting students ready for college and training programs. While it’s being piloted in Lee County, the goal is to ultimately roll it out to the entire region.

The fist two targets of Goal I include increasing the number of District identified Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) partners to a minimum of 10 percent annually and increasing the number of students served through District Pre-Kindergarten programs a minimum of three percent annually through 2020.

To achieve the first two targets, district personnel have developed and implemented specific action plans designed to increase student achievement that include promoting readiness for kindergarten through increased access to high-quality, inclusive early childhood education and educational resources; establishing and maintaining active and engaging learning environments in all schools and providing a standards-based curriculum that is differentiated to meet the learning needs of all students.

The importance of the goal is to increase the quality of education across the county, bridge the learning gaps from Pre-K to K making a more standard process and system across the county, increase communication between Pre-K providers and the public school system and ultimately to increase our region’s skilled workforce in order to sustain and support the demands of workforce needs for our local businesses and economy.

“The workforce is not only better educated as a result of increased school success, but also because children who experience high quality early childhood education develop the soft skills needed for success overall,” said Kristi Biffar, MS, Early Childhood Specialist Supervisor for the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.   “These skills are developed first in early learning settings and include things like turn-taking, developing empathy, paying attention to a task, exploring and asking questions about their environment, and communicating with their peers and teachers. When children are able to develop these social and emotional skills early on, they translate to better classroom experiences, increased productivity, higher educational attainment, and a stronger ability to work well with others.”

“The goal of qualifying district identified Pre-K partners is to achieve a seamless transition for all students in the district entering Kindergarten, no matter where they completed Pre-K and where they will be entering Kindergarten,” said Jeanne LaFountain, director, Intervention Programs, for the Lee County School District.

Five local providers have already achieved the recognition and two additional providers are continuing to work towards it. The five include: The Community Children’s Center, The Children’s Learning Center at FSW, The Learning Tree of Temple Beth EL of Fort Myers, Inc., FGCU Family Resource Center and Gladiolus Learning and Development Center.

To be considered as a Preferred Pre-K Provider agencies must: Achieve and maintain a 4 or 5 rating on the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida’s Quality Rating Improvement System, known as Southwest Florida Stars;submit the end of year School District of Lee County Articulation form to the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida to be distributed to district feeder schools; establish an articulation team that includes a provider administrator and 50 percent of the Pre-K leads; articulation teams attend three of four district-approved/offered trainings; attend at least one articulation meeting with a feeder school; and actively participate in the Kindergarten Family Transition Survey project.

Angela Nader, principal of Orangewood Elementary and a member of the District’s Pre-K-3 Alignment Work Group is supporting this move to streamline early childhood learning and her school has served as a pilot program that ultimately can be rolled out to the entire district.

“We realized one important factor is to learn more about the students and increase communication with their parents before they enter Kindergarten,” Nader said. “Learning how we can approach families in a common way is an important factor. Some of these children have been with their Pre-K partner since birth and only have a dozen students per class or school. Entering into a new, larger public school with more than 500 students can be very scary and intimidating for both the child and the parents.”

An important component is the articulation form, which is aimed at increasing communication between Lee County private Pre-K providers and kindergarten teachers. Parents give permission for the confidential forms to be filled out and shared with a child’s kindergarten for the sole purpose of providing insight into the child’s Pre-K school year. The forms include information on a child’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) assessment of print, phonological awareness, mathematics, oral language, vocabulary, special needs or therapies and more.

According to Biffar, by bridging the gap between private Pre-K programs and Kindergarten classrooms, the Lee County School District’s Preferred Provider program will further strengthen the benefits of high quality early learning experiences. During the professional development sessions, Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers are sitting down together, often for the first time, to discuss their similarities, differences and how they can come together to provide an easier transition for the children and families in their programs. Childcare center directors have been able to pick up the phone and call the Principal or Kindergarten teacher and share information with them about the incoming students. Pre-K teachers are able to better understand what skills new kindergarten students will be expected to have as they begin the school year. In turn, they will use their awareness of developmentally appropriate practices for four- and five- year-old children to develop instruction and activities that will set them on the right course throughout the school year. Additionally, Kindergarten teachers have developed an increased awareness of the rigorous requirements Pre-K teachers face throughout the year. One of the most poignant realizations from Kindergarten teachers during one of these sessions was that Florida has Early Learning and Development Standards for four-year-olds. Pre-K teachers are developing lesson plans and activities to align with these standards and they were able to discuss where these Early Learning Standards will align with the Kindergarten Standards the children will need to meet the following year.

Nader’s group has also created a brochure with important information for families with children entering the County’s Kindergarten classes including details about School Choice, bus stops, school uniforms, etc.

“Through these initial forums we have been able to clear up some misconceptions and begun a process where we are all using a common vocabulary with students in order to help with the transition and the student’s ultimate success into the public school system,” LaFountain added. “We need kids to be ready for school because when they start out behind, it’s very hard to catch up. So many factors are out of our control, but this is in our control.”

Nader said opening the doors of communications between early childhood providers and the district has been essential.

“We have started a program where the Pre-K providers bring their students on a visit to a district school before they start kindergarten so they have a better understanding and are more comfortable with what K – 5thschool will look like,” she said. “The stronger the partnership with Pre-K providers builds more trust for their parents. We are all on the same team and should be working together for the benefit of our children, families and community.”

“It’s been really valuable because it’s opened up the dialogue for between the Pre-K providers and District principals leading to increased training opportunities, shared perspectives, directional alignment and ultimately increasing the quality of what’s occurring in our early childhood environment,” said LaFountain. “Ultimately the goal is to have all Pre-K providers on board with being a Preferred Pre-K partner so parents know they have met a certain criteria and provide a quality learning environment for children so they will be ready for their next stage of learning.”

Circling back to the School District’s 2020 goals, one of the great benefits that has already come out of these efforts is that community and business leaders are beginning to recognize the importance of focusing on and investing in early childhood education.

“Nobel Laureate in Economics Prof. Dr. James Heckman’s research shows us that early learning that occurs from birth to five years of age is not only the foundation of future learning and development, but it is also a strong predictor of later achievement as indicated by a number of markers,” said Biffar. “Investing in high quality early childhood education benefits a community’s overall economy by increasing the high school graduation rate, lowering the crime rate and incarceration, improving health measures, increasing the overall tax base, and creating a stronger workforce. There is a 13 percent rate of return on investments in high quality birth-to-five early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children.”