$10 million gift spurs all-out push to help Florida children succeed in school, life
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — An alarming number of children face extreme obstacles to learning before they enter school — poverty, poor access to health care and meager early-learning opportunities, to name a few. But some impressive help is on the way.
Two champions of early child development and education in Florida will share a $10 million grant and join forces to improve learning by smoothing the transition to school for children who are likely to start school unprepared. The partnership pairs the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning with The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, based in Miami, in an ambitious school-readiness effort called Ready Schools Florida.
The shared grant, announced today by UF officials, was awarded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., one of the world’s largest private foundations.
Early child educators, researchers, program developers and measurement experts involved in the initiative’s four-year roll-out will take a research-proven model of early child intervention and rapidly bring it to scale in Miami-Dade County and, ultimately, to other Florida counties and states.
“Every year, 4 million children in America enter kindergarten. As many as one in three starts school behind and never catches up. The time to reach kids and their families is well before kindergarten,” said David Lawrence Jr., a prominent leader of the school-readiness movement who has close ties with both partnering organizations. “The Ready Schools Florida model seeks to prepare both ‘ready children’ and ‘ready schools’ to enhance a child’s healthy growth and development.”
Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald, is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. He also is a 1963 University of Florida graduate and a board member of the Lastinger Center for Learning at UF’s College of Education. He joined the UF faculty in 2001 as the University Scholar for
Early Childhood Development and Readiness, and last year his alma mater created a $1.5 million
endowed professorship in early childhood studies in his name at the College of Education.
Lawrence’s Miami-based foundation and the UF Lastinger Center also have teamed up in the successful SPARK (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids) program. SPARK emphasizes close parental and school involvement and intensive neighborhood and community planning efforts to help 1,600 Miami-Dade 3-year-olds make the transition to school ready to learn.
The Ready Schools Florida initiative will expand the SPARK model throughout Miami-Dade elementary schools and then, after further evaluation and refinement, to other interested Florida counties.
Lawrence said participating schools, neighborhoods and community organizations will work together to create after-school tutoring programs and to make sure all children have access to medical and dental care. The initiative also calls for increasing the number of accredited early-learning centers in Miami-Dade and collaborating with local and state agencies to create an effective rating scale for such centers.
“We are forging long-term partnerships and strategic funding support that will sustain the Ready Schools Florida effort long after the four-year Kellogg grant expires,” Lawrence said.
While mobilizing community support is key, the initiative focuses intently on the teaching and learning culture inside the schools and classrooms, according to Lastinger Center Director Don Pemberton.
“We will coordinate and align training for pre-kindergarten and elementary teachers and increase parent involvement to create a family-friendly school culture,” Pemberton said. “We’ve created the Florida Ready Schools network to link participating schools for teacher collaboration, shared learning and resources, and ongoing professional development.”
Teachers and principals at participating schools can take advantage of a “job-embedded” master’s degree program in early child education. The program enables cohorts of teachers (pre-K through third grade) and principals from the same school to earn their degrees on-site while working with master teachers and University of Florida education professors from the Lastinger Center for Learning.
The UF College of Education degree program is free except for the cost of books, and participants must commit to remain at their schools for at least five years, helping many high-poverty schools retain some of their most highly qualified teachers and principals.
“This is a brand new concept, combining online graduate education with hands-on coaching by university ‘professors-in-residence’ who embed themselves in the teachers’ own classrooms,” Pemberton said. “Teachers can learn a new teaching strategy one afternoon and immediately apply it in their classroom the next day.”
The job-embedded program is already under way in some Miami schools and also in Collier County in southwest Florida, where a 2006 Lastinger Center study documented the overwhelming odds that young children from low-income families in that community face. Pemberton said some Collier County officials have expressed an early interest in joining the Ready Schools Florida network.