SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County is preparing to offer for the first time a voluntary pre-kindergarten program during the school year at three elementary schools.

At its July 30 meeting, the School Board will vote on approval of the free VPK programs at Lake Country, Memorial and Sun ‘n Lake elementary schools.

The district has been offering a summer VPK program for many years, but there has been never been a school-year program offered in the public schools.

The Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Education Program – or VPK – is a free pre-kindergarten program for 4- and 5-year-olds who reside in Florida. Participating children must be 4 years of age on or before Sept. 1. Parents can enroll their child in a VPK program that year or wait until the following year when their child is 5.

Parents can choose one of two options: the school-year VPK program, which offers 540 instructional hours or summer VPK, which offers 300 instructional hours. Parents may choose a participating private child care or public school provider.

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Program Anne Lindsay said there are private daycare and VPK providers in Highlands County and churches that offer preschool activities and there are other pre-school programs.

Data from the previous year showed that 44% of the children who entered kindergarten were considered “ready” for kindergarten by a state assessment test, she noted.

“We are just trying to provide regular school-year pre-school opportunities with very targeted curriculum that addresses the developmental needs of children that are 4 and 5 years old,” Lindsay said. “We are providing another resource for parents.”

The VPK portion of the program is free for the parents, she noted.

The way it is progressing, it is likely that the district’s VPK program will start after the regular school year starts, which is on Aug. 12, Lindsay said.

The school district will continue to offer its summer VPK program, she added.

Florida VPK has an early language and literacy focus with curriculum centered on reading, writing and social skills to prepare children to be ready for kindergarten.

All VPK instructors must have a minimum of a child development associate degree for the school-year program, or a bachelor’s degree in early childhood or related fields for the summer program.

The district’s VPK application shows an instructional time from 7:30-10:30 a.m. Monday-Friday.

Parents are responsible for their child’s transportation for the VPK program.

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