In Pinellas County, less than 60 percent of children are “ready” for kindergarten when the time comes. While that’s better than the state average of just 53 percent, organizers of a new initiative backed the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and run by the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas are fighting to increase that number to 75 percent in the next five years.
The initiative is called Thrive By Five Pinellas. Dr. Keesha Benson, director of the program, dropped in to the St. Pete Catalyst studio to speak with us about the initiative.
Thrive By Five’s vision is to prepare every child in Pinellas County to enter kindergarten prepared to thrive both in school and in life. The initiative works in the birth to five space, and seeks to mobilize community partners to support families with children to think about childhood education holistically, not just with early learning, but physical health and well-being, social competency, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and family support.
The need for better early learning initiatives is well-documented. Florida began providing free universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state in 2002, and while studies show that VPK is making a difference in kindergarten readiness, Florida’s VPK program lags far behind other states, meeting only two of 10 national quality standards developed by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research.
Early education advocates have also pointed to the under-funding of Florida’s VPK program, providing less than $2500 per student since the program began, as a major factor in the program’s problems. The average VPK teacher makes just $9.70 an hour and the state provides only three hours of free education each day, leaving low-income parents struggling to navigate education and childcare systems and vying for subsidies with long waiting lists.
Last summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the Florida Department of Education to create an early childhood education improvement plan when the state released kindergarten readiness test results that showed even among those who participated in the voluntary pre-K program, 42 percent were not ready for kindergarten.
Thrive By Five Pinellas is following the example of initiatives in Washington D.C., Washington State, and Detroit by taking the reins to close the early learning gap. Thrive By Five seeks to tackle these big, systemic issues utilizing a multi-faceted, community-oriented approach to create an “equitable, accessible, responsive, and accountable early childhood system.”
“I often hear, St. Pete is resource-rich but access-poor,” Benson says. “So how do we ensure that access is there, but not only is it there, its equitable?” While the initiative is just in the beginning months of its work, Benson says it will eventually use three markers to gauge success in its work toward bridging access.
The first marker is systems alignment. Thrive By Five’s engaged partners in the early childhood landscape include the Juvenile Welfare Board, Pinellas County Schools, Florida Department of Health Pinellas, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and many others. They’re working to create and expand a collaborative network of resources and providers that are easily accessible to families who need them, online or in person.
The second is business engagement. Thrive by Five is engaging stakeholders, particularly businesses, service providers and private citizens to do their part to make Pinellas’ children more successful. Thrive By Five will pair early learning centers with business partners. The program, which Benson called “Adopt-A-Center,” would give businesses the opportunity to build the centers’ capacity by providing in-kind services like bookkeeping. Thrive By Five will also launch a Family Friendly Workplace pilot program, which will certify businesses as family-friendly if they provide benefits that help families succeed, like paid maternity leave, flexible schedules or work-from-home opportunities.
The third piece is child and caregiver success. This piece focuses on maximizing the use of current resources available to parents and children to help families succeed. Thrive By Five will eventually utilize the aligned system of partners to create an online registry of services available to families across the county. According to Benson, families will be able to type in their circumstances, needs and location and be provided with a personalized list of services and resources available to them, with an online application form.
Click the arrow above to listen to the full interview with Dr. Keesha Benson, hear about Thrive By Five’s mission and opportunities to get involved in the initiative’s work in Pinellas County. Work groups are already underway. Thrive By Five’s first summit will take place at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity Feb. 26. The event will feature keynote speaker David Lawrence Jr., founder of the Children’s Movement of Florida, and author of A Dedicated Life: Journalism, Justice and a Chance for Every Child. The event is free, but registration is required. Details can be found here.