The Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, also known as VPK, is not a new concept.
In fact, the VPK legislation was signed into law by former Gov. Jeb Bush on Jan. 2, 2005.
Florida was one of the first states in the country to offer free prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds regardless of family income. Since the program began, more than 2.6 million children have benefited from VPK.
However, many educators are saying there has been a steady increase in demand for the programs over the past few years, and parents are voicing their concerns over the lack of space in the local classrooms.
VPK prepares early learners for success in kindergarten and beyond. The program helps build a strong foundation for school using educational material corresponding to various stages in a child’s development, according to the Florida Office of Early Learning.
To be eligible, children must live in Florida and be 4 years old on or before Sept. 1 of the current school year. Parents whose children are born between Feb. 2 and Sept. 1 can postpone enrolling their 4-year-old until the following year when their child is 5.
Data collected by the Department of Education shows that children who participate in VPK are much more ready for kindergarten than children who do not participate in VPK.
Private child care centers, public schools and specialized instructional services providers offer VPK.
According to Michael Ollendorff, Orange County Public Schools media relations manager, the district has roughly 3,000 students enrolled in VPK programs provided at district schools. Tentatively, there are 63 full-day and 22 half-day programs planned for the 2022-23 school year.
Public schools in West Orange County offering VPK include Maxey, Ocoee, Dillard Street, Keene’s Crossing, SunRidge, Thornebrooke, Tildenville and Whispering Oak.
“There has always been a high demand for VPK programs,” he said. “OCPS is dedicated and committed to providing support, resources and advocacy for the protection and continuance of developmentally appropriate and child-centered practices in the early childhood classroom environment.”
Registration for zoned students began Feb. 24, while open registration began March 6.
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, the VPK registration opened at Water Spring Elementary School in Horizon West.
Water Spring Principal Matthew Hendricks said VPK is a program that principals opt in to host at their schools. Currently, Water Spring and Keene's Crossing are the only schools in that area of Horizon West that host VPK.
“This creates a very high demand because we only have 40 half-day seats available, 20 a.m. and 20 p.m.,” he said. “Registration is done in three phases. The first phase is for those who have siblings that currently attend Water Spring. The second phase is for those who live in the Water Spring school zone but do not currently have any siblings that attend. Then the last phase is open to anyone. During our first phase we filled all 40 seats and had a waiting list for both the a.m. and p.m. sessions.”
Hendricks said the wait list continues to grow each week.
Parent Holly Stogsdill said she was the third-to-last parent to get a spot in the school’s program after waiting nearly 11 hours in line.
According to parents, registration at the school was supposed to happen at 4 p.m., but a few parents decided to sleep overnight in order to wait in line for a highly coveted morning VPK class spot.
“What happened last week at Water Spring was an absolute disaster,” Stogsdill shared. “Every parent there made major sacrifices to be in line that day. When parents started dropping students off in the morning and saw the tents, pandemonium ensued. Frantic phone calls were made, people had to call into work, I personally had to call a friend and ask if she could watch my two boys, who are ages 4 and 1, right then so I could go wait in line.”
Stogsdill said she arrived at the school at 9:30 a.m. and sat next to a neighbor who had to call into work at the last minute so she could wait in line.
“Shortly after, a sweet momma with her 3-year-old and 4-month-old baby set up next to me,” she said. “She had brought a scooter, baby bouncer, stroller, snacks, bottles, lawn chairs and any other essentials she could grab as she ran out the door to try and get a spot.
After counting and seeing there were clearly already enough parents there to fill all 40 available spots, Stogsdill said she went into the school to talk to Hendricks.
“I asked what the plan was, and he said to wait until 4 p.m.,” she said. “I was honestly stunned. There was going to be no change of plan to the procedure given these unexpected and new circumstances? When I went back out, one parent had set up a chair for a friend in the middle of the line. There were rude and disrespectful words exchanged, and the school police officer was brought out who suggested we start an unofficial list, which we did. Nobody was prepared to sit in the sun for as long as we did. People hadn’t brought enough food or water, and we had to use the school bathroom. We were sunburned, thirsty, hungry and frustrated. And what we didn’t expect was we’d be there long enough to need bug spray too.”
Stogsdill said the school allowed the parents to wait inside around 7:45-8 p.m. after several had asked. She said she did not sit down with the registrar until 8:30 p.m.
“It was painfully long,” she said. “Not once during the entire day did anyone from the school come out and communicate anything to us. The lack of communication by school administration was stunning. They seemed completely apathetic. I was the third to last parent to get a spot. There were other people behind me who waited nearly just as long as me who got turned away at 8 p.m. I felt terrible for them.”
Parent Carla Andrews said she had a similar experience. She said she got there at 9:45 a.m. and was the 33rd person in line.
As a stay-at-home mom, Andrews said her eligible child hasn’t been able to participate in school because there are no preschools less than 30 minutes away.
“There are daycares in the area she potentially could have attended, but it would have cost a mortgage payment to send her if we could even get a spot,” she said. “It’s important to us that she can socialize well with other children and is better prepared to start kindergarten instead of transitioning straight from home 100% of the day to school six hours a day, five days a week. We chose the Water Spring VPK program as we already have a child at the school. It’s very close to home, and it will help our daughter become familiar with the expectations of the school that she will attend the following year.”
Jesse Bennett said his wife planned to get to the school around 2 p.m. to get in line for the registration which was to happen at 4 p.m.
As he took his son to school at 8:20 a.m., he noticed a line where she was told to stand with more than 25 people already in it. He said he called his wife and told her to come home from work immediately as he didn’t think they would get a spot in the top 40.
“She broke down because there was no communication by school of how and what to do,” Bennett said. “She ended up in line for the 36th spot at 9:30 a.m. She waited 11 hours until she was able to leave. The school did a terrible job all around in our eyes. The people who camped came around 9:30 the night before and took up a bunch of spots and really started the problem/panic. Forty spots total and a lot of tears late, we got our son in. I’m glad I don’t have another kid for VPK next year and feel sorry for anyone who waited and didn’t make the cut.”
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
Kelly Malmberg, who works at the office at Windermere Union Church Preschool, said the school had to turn one of its 3-year-old classes into another VPK class.
“We were short over 40 3-year-olds this next year, which has never happened before,” she said. “We had an overflow of 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds.”
Malmberg said some of the local elementary schools are losing the programs and the school, which is only a small part-time preschool, does not have the resources to combat the rising demand.
Parent Karen Collazo said the problems with VPK have been going on in West Orange County for years.
Collazo said she slept outside the school from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. in freezing cold weather on a lounge chair in order to get her daughter into the school 20 years ago.
“Things were bad then, and nothing has changed,” she said. “There were over 50 people that night with me. You have to do whatever it takes to secure a spot in a reputable program.”