You may have seen signs in front of daycare centers and preschools advertising FREE VPK! But what exactly is VPK? Here is what you need to know.
Florida is one of the few states in the country to offer free VPK (voluntary prekindergarten) to all 4-year-olds. To be eligible children must be 4-years-old on or before Sept. 1 of the current school year. Otherwise, children born later like mine will need to wait to enroll until the following year.
Coming from up North, where preschools can run parents 25k per year, this free program was one of the many factors we took into consideration when moving. However, it’s important to note that while the 540 hours required for VPK is free, if you need wrap-around care that is not covered. Thus, “free” can be a bit misleading for those looking for a full day of care for their children. Either way, it’s still a savings for families with children already in preschool and a nice respite for stay at home parents looking to enrich their child’s education. The total value is averaged at $2,380.38 per child.
Besides the monetary value, why is VPK important?
82% of children who completed VPK in Florida in 2013 were ready for kindergarten compared to 53% who did not attend.
While I was easily able to find listings of VPK providers online, I didn’t know how to start the process. I kept hearing moms with kids older than mine talking about being waitlisted for their first choice school and applying for a voucher, and it got me nervous.
To help make the process easier for other parents selecting a VPK school for the first time, we spoke with experts and educators at Milestones Learning Center in Estero, Florida to get their tips. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes!
5 Tips for Starting the VPK Application Process
- Start the process early. Depending on the date your child’s birthday falls on, begin your search when your child is three-years-old or the year before to enrollment. Also, be prepared to confirm your choice the January before the Fall school year starts to confirm your child’s place in the VPK school of your choice. The sought after VPK programs are typically full come February!
- Do your research. Search online from VPK certified and accredited institutions, read Google and Facebook reviews and narrow down your list to three schools that meet your child’s educational needs and your family’s schedule. Keep in mind that not all VPK programs are the same. Every VPK provider has flexibility in structuring the hours per day and days per week to meet the required instructional hours. For example, if a program is 180 days as a traditional school-year calendar, it would offer 3 hours of instruction each day to meet the requirement. Besides a Fall Session, some centers offer a Summer Session too that provide 300 instructional hours. So, find a school that best fits your schedule since some have longer days but fewer days each week. More on Looking For The Right VPK For Your Child.
- Decide what is most important for your child’s learning path. Determine what areas your child needs to focus on in order to be best prepared for Kindergarten. Is it interacting with other kids, following instructions, speech, letter recognition, etc? Not all VPK programs are the same, so knowing what is important for your child will help make your selection of a school easier once you start to speak with representatives and tour the schools.
- Visit the school and meet with teachers/directors. While this seems obvious, I can’t stress how important I found this step to be. Based on my initial online searching, the school I was so sure was perfect for my boys, ended up not being the right choice for us. In-person, I just didn’t feel it. The moment I walked into the learning center where my boys will be attending, my mom radar breathed a sigh of relief. I was further reassured as I spoke with the president of the school and learned about their values and approach. If possible even sit in on a VPK class currently in progress. Parents can also use the Quality Checklist for Evaluating Early Learning Programs when visiting potential early learning programs.
- Get your state voucher – I selected a school, confirmed there was availability for two spots, but then needed to get a voucher from the state to provided to the VPK; this can be done at Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida. You just need to upload a photo of your Florida driving license and scan your child’s birth certificate. You should receive your voucher within 48 hours. Do not fill it out at home though, wait to do it at the school you are applying to in the presence and instruction of their staff.
That’s it; you got this! And remember, it’s a magical time for your child, which will not only prepare them for kindergarten but parents too. Good luck!