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Enroll Escambia Aims To Get More Kids In Preschool

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Achieve Escambia is leading a coalition of local agencies trying to spread the message that “early learning matters.”

They’re spending several weeks this summer conducting the awareness campaign Enroll Escambia.

“Enroll Escambia is a cooperative effort to enroll more preschool children in preschool,” said Kimberly Krupa, executive director of Achieve Escambia.

This organization was created to ensure every generation in the county achieves success, from cradle to career. As part of that, Krupa says preschool is a critical factor in getting children ready for kindergarten.

“We see from our local learning gains that children who complete preschool see tremendous growth.” Krupa noted. “Some of them are coming in, about 26% are able to do math, basic math that you would expect at a 4-year-old level and by the time they’re leaving preschool they’re almost at 90%.”

In 2018, 45% of the children who entered kindergarten in Escambia County were “ready for Kindergarten” when they got there. Achieve has set a bold goal of 60% kindergarten-readiness by 2020, 75% by 2025.

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Earlier this summer, it was noticed that there’s also a lot of room at Title 1 elementary school preschool sites that offer Head Start and VPK programs. Krupa says Enroll Escambia aims to fill those open slots.

“What we’re doing is looking at data on a weekly basis, enrollment data, and adjusting our outreach strategy at housing complexes and community centers in those neighborhoods. And, we’re going door to door to try to reach parents who either don’t know about preschool or are experiencing barriers to accessing the enrollment process to get their child or grandchild to preschool.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
On behalf of Achieve Escambia, Valerie Hollinger is going door to door in targeted neighborhoods to inform parents about the importance of enrolling their young children in preschool.

Valerie Hollinger is the (AmeriCorps) VISTA outreach coordinator for Achieve Escambia. In this role, she’s been doing much of the groundwork for the Enroll Escambia campaign.

"I’m actually trying to meet the people where they are,” said Hollinger. “Meaning I’m going into different housing complexes, neighborhoods, trying to educate them about the importance of early education, Head Start, VPK, and kindergarten and how it can impact their lives and improve the lives of their children.”

On this day, Hollinger meets up at a small park across from Montclair Elementary School. It’s not far from the Truman Arms apartment complex, which is one of the places where she’s been conducting outreach for the past month or so. She says building trust has been a process.

“Sometimes, they’d look out the window and see me and I’d see them, but they still didn’t come to the door,” Hollinger explained of her initial interactions. “But, as I remained focused and was repetitive every week; I’m there at the same time. I’m getting to know them as people. I’m going into the laundry room. I’m going into the playground. Wherever I see the people are or gathering as a community, I’m there, too. And, so a they started seeing me come, they started opening the doors.”

When the doors open, Hollinger takes the opportunity to educate the children, bringing books that have been donated, and she provides information about early childhood education to their parents.

“Some of them were young mothers when they became mothers; some are elderly raising the children of their children, so it’s very different.” said Hollinger noting that with technology a lot has changed for parents of preschoolers in the past 40 years. “So as I’m talking to them, I’m letting them know how I can help them as a family, how I can help the children and them as individuals.”

Hollinger’s door-to-door Enroll Escambia outreach is expected to continue for at least two more weeks.

Meantime, individuals with preschool age children can contact the Escambia School District, Head Start, or the Early Learning Coalition, the provider of free Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) education for 4-year olds, regardless of family income.

In Escambia, 2019 VPK enrollment was about 59%, significantly less than the state rate of 76%.

A public service announcement from the Early Learning Coalition of Florida pitches the importance of education for youngsters. “The first four years of a child’s life are crucial,” says the narrator. “Enroll your four-year-old in VPK today. VPK, the first great step.”

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to make sure happens is folks don’t  have a kid at home thinking I wish we had a program,” said Doug Brown, executive director of the Community Action Program, which administers the federal Head Start program in Escambia County. This program for 3-5 year olds promotes school readiness for children in low-income families.

Credit Community Action Program
Community Action Program
Map of Head Start centers in Escambia County.

Right now, there are a lot of openings.

“Our agency has 855 slots available for totally. Of that, we’ve got 440 slots that are available. Those centers for those locations are throughout the county. So from Molino to Cantonment, Century, throughout Escambia county, we’ve got centers with classrooms. So, we’re near every household in this county. It’s just a question of do we have space available.”

Additionally, Escambia County has 80 pre-Head Start slots for younger children age 6 months to 2 years old. Brown says there’s no good reason for eligible families to keep their preschool age children at home.

“What’s missed through not enrolling is all those developmental checkpoints that we make sure that are done; that include screenings, that include dental, that include wellness,” said Brown.. “All of those things mom may not necessarily be aware of. And, if they are that’s great, but we make sure those things get done and other providers do as well.”

No matter where a child is enrolled, the end goal is to have them kindergarten-ready.

The Enroll Escambia campaign will continue until school starts on August 12, with information distributed through public service announcements, social media channels. Education officials hope individuals will share by word of mouth.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.