By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

A nonprofit in Osceola County is working to make early education more accessible to local low-income families.

Charlie Rodgers, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition, went before Kissimmee city officials earlier this month to discuss two options available to young children and their parents.

Rodgers told the board he’s worried that not enough families are aware of these free services.

“It’s vitally important that we work with these children and families to make sure they’re given the right stimulation, so they’re ready and prepared to be successful,” he said.

The Osceola County Early Learning Coalition was created by Florida statue in 1999.

It is one of 30 learning coalitions in the state, and each receives funding and support from the Florida Department of Education.

The coalition currently serves more than 4,500 children. Its recently approved annual budget of nearly $15 million allows the collation to operate two major early learning programs – a voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) program and a school readiness program.

Once a child is accepted into either program, parents can choose from about 200 certified and accredited local child care providers. Parents can pick from private and faith-based child-care centers, private and public schools and licensed family child care homes.

The VPK program is free and available to every 4- and 5-year-old child in Osceola County. It’s offered during both the summer and the school year. The school-year program includes 540 hours of instructional time and usually begins in August, while the summer program consists of 300 instructional hours.

To find out more about VPK, call 321-219-6300.

The school readiness program assists economically disadvantaged families with child care expenses. The program is subsidized by the state, and allows the coalition to pay a portion of tuition costs for families who could not afford it otherwise. These services also include extended-day, extended-year, and school age care for children up to the age of eight years old.

The purpose is to give quality child care while parents are at work.

To learn more about program eligibility criteria, or to access child-care referral services, visit familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com.

Rodgers said both services are especially beneficial to low-income and working class parents who may think they can’t afford an early education program.

He added that children who are developmentally behind are more likely to fail the state third-grade reading test and fall behind in school.

“Unfortunately, most of the inmates at the county jail have a fourth grade reading level,” Rodgers said. “It’s much less expensive to give them the bright start early on then to incarcerate them later on.”

To engage local families, the Osceola ELC is hosting a free family STEM night Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. at Osceola Heritage Park. The coalition is partnering with Disney World and the Orlando Science Center for hands-on activities during the event.