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Florida VPK – Free Prekindergarten for all 4-Year-Olds

Preschool VPK Florida

The Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program – or VPK – is a FREE prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds who live in Florida. Participation in a Pre-K program can help prepare a child for success in elementary school and beyond. Children practice age-appropriate skills as they play to help them learn to follow directions, be attentive, work with classmates, recognize letters and numbers, and more.

The State of Florida pays for 1 year of VPK attendance per child, and all 4-year-olds are eligible, regardless of family income. Details regarding the types of providers, VPK Florida options, and how to apply can be found below.

Interested in learning more about child care options in Florida? We know it can be hard to navigate! Learn more about preschool vs daycare in Florida and what the options are for each age.

Table of Contents

    FAQ’s about VPK in Florida

    What is VPK?

    VPK stands for Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program. Florida’s VPK Program offers free preschool education to 4-year-olds who reside in the state. It is a great way for children to get an early start on learning, preparing them to be successful in school.

    u003cstrongu003eWho is eligible for VPK in Florida?u003c/strongu003e

    Every 4-year-old is eligible for free VPK in Florida. They are eligible during the school year that begins AFTER they turn 4. For example, a child who turns 4 on October 9, 2022 or January 9, 2023 (etc) would be eligible to start VPK in the fall of 2023. All children are eligible, VPK is not an income-based program.u003cbru003eu003cbru003eu003cstrongu003eDelayed VPK Enrollment Optionu003c/strongu003e – A law was passed in 2016 allowing parents with u003cstrongu003echildren born between Feb. 2 through Sept. 1u003c/strongu003e to postpone enrolling their child in VPK the year they turn 4 and wait until the following year when their child is 5. This allows parents of younger 4-year-olds to delay the year their child begins VPK, enabling the child to begin kindergarten and first grade as a slightly older, more mature student. Following the example above, a child who turns 4 on April 9, 2023 or August 9, 2023 (etc) would be eligible to start VPK in the fall of 2023 OR delay and start in fall of 2024. You don’t need to apply on your “assigned” year if you plan to delay, simply wait until the following year.

    How many hours is VPK in Florida?

    Florida VPK Programs are typically 3 hours each day. Many providers offer “wrap-around care” which covers the remainder of the day for a fee.u003cbru003eu003cbru003eThe VPK School Year Program includes a total of 540 instructional hours. The VPK Summer Program includes 300 instructional hours. Providers have flexibility to structure the hours per day and days per week to meet the required number of instructional hours, so each program will look different – some could be 8:30-11:30am, others 12pm-3pm.

    Is VPK mandatory in Florida?

    No, children in Florida are not required to attend VPK, it is an optional program. Florida law says children are required to attend school the year they turn 6 by February 1.

    Is there a VPK Attendance Policy in Florida?

    Yes, all Florida VPK programs have an attendance policy for enrolled children. Programs are at risk of losing funding if a child misses more than 20% of the VPK program’s instructional hours. VPK providers will provide parents with a copy of their written attendance policy upon enrollment.

    Is every preschool in Florida a VPK?

    No, u003cstrongu003enot every preschool with a PreK-4 class is considered a VPKu003c/strongu003e. The State of Florida has a set of standards and progress reporting guidelines that a child care provider must agree to follow in order to accept VPK Certificates (funding). Not all preschools choose to participate.

    What are the alternatives to VPK?

    Additional child care options for children age 4 – 5 include private preschools, church preschools, or charter schools that do not offer VPK (they still have a preschool program for 4-year-olds but don’t accept VPK Vouchers as payment), Head Start programs (income based), or home daycares. Visit our full article on u003cstrongu003eu003ca href=u0022https://lakelandmom.com/florida-childcare/u0022u003eChildcare Options in Floridau003c/au003eu003c/strongu003e to learn more about the u003cstrongu003edifference between daycares, preschools, private child care, VPK, and opportunities for assistance with child care expenses.u003c/strongu003e

    Is there VPK for for 3 year olds in Florida?

    No, Florida does not offer free VPK for 3 year olds. Eligible children may qualify for Head Start preschool programs for 3 year olds, and private providers also offer self-pay PreK-3 programs for 3 year olds.

    Is VPK free in Florida?

    Yes, VPK is free in Florida as long as you complete the necessary steps to apply for a VPK Certificate of Eligibility and enroll in an eligible voluntary prekindergarten VPK program. Payment may be required for wrap-around care outside of the free VPK hours.

    How to apply for Florida VPK Programs

    This is where we get into the nitty-gritty of how to actually get your child signed up for VPK in Florida – specifically in Lakeland, Winter Haven, and all of Polk County. (If you live in a different county, contact your Early Learning Coalition for more information – you must apply in the county where you live).

    Florida VPK providers include public elementary schools, local charter schools, private preschools, and religious-affiliated preschools. There are 2 steps to getting enrolled – getting a VPK Voucher and signing up for a VPK Program.

    Step 1 – Apply for your VPK Certificate of Eligibility

    Visit the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County’s website and log into the Family Portal to apply. You can begin this process on January 1 of the year you plan for your child to start VPK. You will need the documents listed below in electronic format to submit with your online application. Children must live in the county where you are applying for a VPK Certificate.

    • One Proof of Florida Residence – Examples include: utility bill (electric, gas water), cable bill, home phone bill, Pay stub, driver’s license, ID Card, etc. – full list can be found in the application
    • One Proof of Child’s Age – Examples include: Original or certified copy of the child’s birth record filed according to law with the appropriate public officer, Passport or certificate of the child’s arrival in the United States, Immunization record signed by a public health officer or licensed practicing physician – full list can be found in the application

    If a family does not have access to technology to access the VPK application online, contact the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County to make alternative application arrangements (click here for office locations and phone numbers).

    Step 2 – Find a VPK Provider + Apply

    In addition to applying for a VPK Certificate (Step 1 above) you must also apply and be admitted to a VPK Program. There are multiple locations for VPK and our goal is to help you understand where, when, and how to apply. There are 2 options for VPK Program Options in Polk County:

    Polk County Public Schools Early Childhood Programs

    VPK (Voluntary PreK) is currently offered at 22 elementary school sites throughout Polk County. Any child residing in Polk County can apply to attend VPK at one of these sites. Polk Schools VPK Programs are either a free half-day OR full-day with parent co-pay, it varies by location.

    Title 1 PK is a federally funded full-day preschool program for 4-year-old children residing in select Title 1 school zones. There are currently 22 sites in Polk County. Due to strict funding guidelines for Title 1 PreK programs, only children residing in that school’s zone can apply to attend a Title 1 PK program. All Title 1 PK programs are a full day with no additional cost.

    Title 1 PK vs. VPK Designation: Title 1 provides additional funding for supplemental academic support to schools with a high percentage of poverty. Schools are assessed each year to ensure that low-income, at-risk students have access to preschool programs. A school previously designated as a VPK may now be a Title 1 PK, and vice versa.

    In addition, Head Start is a federally funded program that promotes school readiness for children under the age of 5 from low-income families through education, health, social and other services. Head Start is currently offered at 26 sites in Polk County.

    How to apply for Polk County Schools Early Childhood Programs

    NEW in 2023The Polk County Schools Early Childhood programs application process has changed and is now entirely online. There is now one streamlined application process for ALL of Polk County Public Schools Early Childhood programs including VPK, Title 1 PK, or Head Start.

    If you would like for your child to attend a Polk County Public School early childhood program, you must apply beginning in the spring of the year your child is eligible to attend in the fall. Applications are accepted on the PCPS Early Childhood website (formerly the Polk Preschools website) beginning in March each year. There is now a priority application window of approximately 1 month to ensure that all families have an opportunity to apply for early childhood programs.

    1. Gather the required documentation in digital format (list on application page). You will need to upload these documents when you apply online.
    2. Be sure to complete the application during the Priority Application Window in March. Although applications are accepted after the initial application window, they are added to the end of the list.
    3. NEW starting in 2023 – After submitting your pre-application, an Early Childhood staff member will contact you for an intake phone call to review and complete your application. Based on your address and sibling information, they can also let you know what school you are zoned for. 
    4. Keep in mind there is limited space for Polk County Schools Early Childhood Programs and the completion of an application does not guarantee a spot.

    Editor’s Note – up until 2021, applications were accepted in person at the Preschool office and processed in the order they were received, so families lined up really early in the morning on the first day to submit applications. The application process has been completely revamped and there are no more early lines or rush to apply on the day applications are available.

    Private Preschools + Charter Schools

    The Early Childhood/Preschool application mentioned above is ONLY for locations at Polk County Public Schools. If you are interested in attending VPK at a private preschool, church preschool, Montessori preschool, McKeel preschool or other charter school, you will have to contact each school directly – they all have their own application process and may only accept applications for a limited window each year.

    A note regarding charter schools – while these are free public schools, they are only free for grades K-12. If you are interested in attending VPK or preschool at a charter school you will likely pay for wraparound care outside of the ~3 hours covered by VPK.

    Unfortunately, we’ve heard from a lot of moms and dads lately that it is difficult to find a preschool with openings. Our best advice is to get on the waitlist as soon as possible if you have a specific preschool in mind (most private providers will allow you to join the waitlist prior to applying for your VPK certificate) and be prepared to make phone calls.

    Resources to help locate a VPK near you

    • The Early Learning Coalition is a great resource in your child care search. The ELC website has helpful guidelines on picking a provider as well as a list of VPK programs by city, and you can also call for current availability and assistance with childcare payments.
    • Florida Child Care Search – The Florida Department of Children and Families has a database of all licensed child care providers in Florida. We recommend using it on a desktop to fully take advantage of the search features. You can search by zip code or city (recommended), and then use the filter bar to narrow down your search if you need VPK, a provider that accepts School Readiness, full day, food served, etc.
    • Lakeland Moms Facebook Group – Join the group and search past posts for recommended daycares, preschools/VPK, or post with what age and location you’re searching for.
    • Childcare, Preschool & VPK Guide – We have a list of reader recommended and self submitted childcare providers in our directory, but it is not comprehensive, there are many more that have not yet been added (there are almost 400 licensed sites in Polk County).

    Remember that not all preschools for 4 year olds accept VPK certificates. You can use the links above (Polk ELC and Florida DCF) to find VPK providers, and the most accurate source will be to ask the facility if they accept VPK certificates. If they do not accept VPK Certificates, self-pay is also an option for PreK-4. Learn more about the difference between daycare and preschool options in Florida.

    PreK for Students with Disabilities

    PreK ESE Programs are also available at select Polk County schools. Visit the Polk Schools ESE PreK website for more information on screening and other FAQ’s.

    A child who has an IEP and is age-eligible for VPK can also choose Specialized Instructional Services Providers (VPK-SIS) instead of a traditional VPK Program. SIS can provide specific therapy including speech therapy, physical or occupational therapy, ABA services, and more from a certified or licensed professional.

    Benefits of early education and the VPK program

    Participation in a Pre-K program can help prepare a child for success in elementary school and beyond. Research has shown that children who participate in high-quality early childhood education programs develop better language skills, score higher in school-readiness tests and have better social skills and fewer behavioral problems once they enter school.

    For additional information on Polk County’s VPK programs, call the Early Learning Coalition office at (863) 577-2450 and their helpful staff can answer any questions and walk you through the process.

    For more information on VPK in Polk County: Early Learning Coalition website

    For information on VPK from the State of Florida: Office of Early Learning website

    Childcare Guide

    Check out our Childcare Guide for Lakeland + Polk County for other childcare topics including preschools, daycare, VPK, after school care, school holiday camps, and more.