Preschools in Volusia County are in a crisis because of long waiting lists of children and empty classrooms because there are not enough preschool teachers, according to local experts,.
Now the Early Learning Coalition of Flagler and Volusia is stepping in with an $895,000 grant to inject funds into preschools.
The coalition is assisting in recruiting teachers to the field and is attempting to reverse the trend of children being unprepared for kindergarten.
“According to a study we did with childcare providers, there are 1,500 children on wait lists at child care providers that we can’t serve because there aren’t enough teachers that they can hire,” said DJ Lebo, coalition CEO. “They have children just waiting to go into their programs.”
The coalition already has the funds from the state, Ms. Lebo said. “Our goal is to get 100 teachers in childcare facilities in the next couple of months. This is easily a career for somebody. Whenever you are talking about childcare, it’s the most important time in a child’s life.”
She cited a talk she attended featuring Dr. Dana Suskind, who stated the brain is the only organ that is not fully formed at birth. Part of what teachers do with children in those first five years is help develop that last organ.
“We try to make sure we have a program that meets the parent’s needs,” Ms. Lebo said. “It’s really critical that we find these teachers and we help get them into the classroom. Last year we could see that almost half of our children in Flagler and Volusia weren’t ready for school coming into kindergarten and we want to change that.”
Getting children into programs also will help parents get back to work full time, she said. “We’re trying to get the word out that we’re willing to pay for training to come into the program. We’re trying to help both that incoming teacher and that child care provider.”
The pandemic largely caused the shortage, Ms. Lebo said. “There was a group who took their children and went home and stayed home.”
While the childcare programs began to reopen, many of the workers left the profession for a variety of reasons, she said. “One was pay; one was they were not sure if it was the environment they wanted to be in; unsure of the safety of it. And this particular industry requires some training to come into the program.”
Voluntary pre-kindergarten enrollment is down 8.1% in Volusia and during the recently ended school year, 46% of five-year-olds didn’t meet school readiness criteria for kindergarten., according to statistics from the Florida Department of Education provided by Front Porch Communications. Similar ratios are occurring in Flagler County with VPK enrollment down 5.8% and 55% of five-year-olds not having the skills they need for kindergarten.
Sandra Perez’s four-year-old son stays at home with his grandmother instead of going to VPK. Ms. Perez hasn’t been able to find a program with room to take him.
“I’ve tried about 15 different schools in the area,” she stated in a news release from Front Porch. “There are long waiting lists everywhere. I know he will not be ready for kindergarten in the fall. He has regressed with his speech and potty training for the time he has been out of school. I just don’t know what else to do for school for him while I am at work.”
The state grant is one of the largest in recent memory to directly address the need for preschool educators in the community. The coalition will work to recruit, retain and train to strengthen the early education workforce.
The Department of Children and Families licenses childcare centers and homes, and monitors health and safety in them. The coalition infuses high quality into those programs. It’s goal is to help providers get quality teachers.
The grant will provide incentives, and financial assistance to new teachers and childcare center owners contracted with the coalition. The incentives for new teachers hired into the field include a $500 cash bonus, $1,200 to spend on classroom supplies, free early learning education and free support.
Childcare center incentives include reimbursement for all DCF training and background check expenses for new teachers, reimbursement of the first four weeks of a new teacher’s salary, free CPR and first aid training for new teachers, and personalized support for new teachers by the coalition.
For more information, visit elcfv.org/teach/.