Early Learning: Simple Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child
Preschool can provide a great social and educational experience for young children. Spending time selecting a school for your family from among the many options in your community will help ensure your child gets the maximum benefit from his or her preschool years.
The Florida Department of Children and Families is one place to start. This state agency periodically visits and evaluates licensed preschools against a checklist of minimum health and safety measures the state has set for all licensed preschools to meet. These inspections look at everything from whether a preschool is meeting required staffing levels to the safety of its play equipment and cleanliness of its facility. Inspection reports are kept on file and are available for the public to read. For more information, contact your local DCF office or visit the department’s website: http://www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/child-care.
Your local early learning coalition is a great resource for finding preschools that provide a good educational program. These coalitions can provide you with tips for choosing a school. To find one, see the sidebar or visit floridaearlylearning.com.
Visiting the preschool yourself is a critical step. Be prepared to get answers to the following questions:
• Do the children seem happy and engaged? • Does the staff seem nurturing and responsive? • How is discipline handled? • Do you feel your child would be comfortable and happy there? • Are you comfortable placing your child there? • Does the director know what children need? • Do the director and the lead teacher have bachelor’s degrees in child-related fields? • How long have they and the other teachers worked in child care? • Do the staff and children follow basic health measures such as hand-washing, particularly around meals and diapering? • Do the toys and playground equipment appear clean, appropriate and safe? • Is the program licensed by the state? Is it accredited?
Spending time to find the right preschool can help ensure your child has a healthy, happy preschool experience.
In Florida, parents can take advantage of the Voluntary Prekindergarten Program
Voluntary prekindergarten began as a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in November, 2002, and signed into law in January, 2005. It is designed to prepare every four-year-old in Florida for kindergarten, laying a foundation for educational success. The VPK program is free for eligible children. The program has high quality standards, including qualified instructors, age-appropriate curriculums with a strong emphasis on early literacy skills, and manageable class sizes. The program is voluntary for children and providers.
Parental choice is a priority; therefore, both private and public providers may participate. VPK providers have flexibility in structuring the hours per day and days per week to meet the required number of instructional hours. Parents can choose to enroll their children in the School Year Program with 540 instructional hours or the Summer Program with 300 instructional hours.
Each private provider must either be a licensed child care facility, a licensed family day care home, a licensed large family child care home, or a nonpublic school or faith-based child care provider that is exempt from licensure. Registered family day care homes are not eligible because they are not inspected and licensed by the state.
Each private provider must also be accredited by an association with membership in one of the following agencies:
• National Council for Private School Accreditation, ncpsa.org • Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, citaschools.org • Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, faans.org
If the provider is not accredited by one of the above agencies, it must either hold a current Gold Seal Quality Care designation or be a licensed child care provider and demonstrate to the early learning coalition that it meets the VPK program requirements. Unlicensed family child care homes and informal child care providers are not eligible to participate in the program.
VPK Child Eligibility
The VPK program is free for eligible children, regardless of family income. Providers are not permitted to charge a registration fee or require parents to agree to any additional services.
To be eligible, a child must be four years of age, but not five years of age or older, on September 1 of the program year. Parents must provide proof of their child’s age (such as a birth certificate or passport) and proof of residency (such as a Florida driver’s license, lease or current utility bill) at time of enrollment.
For more information and a list of VPK providers, contact your county’s Early Learning Coalition
Orange County: 407-841-6607, elcoforangecounty.org Seminole County: 407-871-1101, seminoleearlylearning.org Osceola County: 407-933-5353, elcosceola.org Lake County: 352-435-0566, elclc.org Volusia County: 386-323-2400, elcfv.org