ST. PETERSBURG — Mornings used to be a constant struggle for Latrese Norris, a full-time nursing student from Jordan Park who also works as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Her 2- and 3-year-old daughters would cry and scream whenever she had to drop them off at day care centers that were often too expensive and unreliable.
“If your child is crying when you drop them off, there’s a reason for it,” Norris said. “Now, both of my girls never want to leave school. I can see the growth in my kids’ learning and understanding between big and small shapes, colors, alphabet, they’re singing nursery rhymes, they’re potty-trained, and they’re happy.”
The difference is in the school-like structure of the Juvenile Welfare Board’s Center for Early Learning at McCabe Methodist Church, one of three centers the board has opened in recent months at United Methodist churches in Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
This school year, Pinellas County Schools and the Juvenile Welfare Board, which counts Superintendent Michael Grego as a member, hope to launch more early learning programs to better prepare students to enter kindergarten. The move follows a study by the agency and the school district that found that last school year nearly 40 percent of children entering kindergarten in Pinellas County weren’t academically ready and fell behind in classes.
“Children are not ready to go to school. They don’t know their colors. They don’t know their numbers. Their social skills are not good, and when 40 percent of children in this county are not ready to go to school, there’s something lacking in the preparation in the early learning environment,” said Marcie Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board.
“We can rely on parents and rely on child care, but, honestly, that’s not happening, and numbers show it.”
There are many preschools in the county, but struggling parents often only receive vouchers to pay for the services and are left on their own to find the right child care provider. In the new Juvenile Welfare Board centers, teachers all have been screened, have bachelor’s degrees, go through myriad trainings and follow a research-based curriculum, said Karen Sierra, program development manager for the agency.
Children between the ages of 2 months and 4 years old practice skills such as reading, writing, spelling and math on iPads and activities in classes with small student-to-teacher ratios. The service is free for parents, who for now are being identified through the other Juvenile Welfare Board support services they use, but they are expected to attend regular meetings on how to work with their children outside of school.
The Juvenile Welfare Board is also partnering with the school district to open the new Lew Williams Center for Early Learning once renovations are completed in the coming months at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers’ St. Petersburg location. That center will target about 350 children between 1 and 4 who are living in poverty. School Board members will hear an update on the center’s progress at Tuesday’s workshop.
Interest should be high, Sierra said. There are already waiting lists for the Juvenile Welfare Board centers, which hold between 55 and 58 children each. Agency researchers are constantly assessing the progress of students, teachers and parents to track how successful the program has actually been, Sierra said. The real test will come when the first class of students enters kindergarten next school year.
But with songs such as “Preschool’s where I started from, look out kindergarten here I come,” ringing though the hallways of the McCabe center, parents and teachers say they are up for the challenge.