This story about preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA and the Naples Daily News. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
NAPLES, Fla. — Gathering outside the Ritz-Carlton golf resort in Naples, Florida, home to the nation’s 15th-richest ZIP code, interested bidders in polished resort-wear admired the arctic-white leather interior of a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Some 30 miles east in Immokalee, a small town made up largely of trailer homes that surround Main Street’s mom-and-pop shops, migrant farmworkers picked tomatoes or stood in factory assembly lines to package produce.
Though the two scenes last January appear to be worlds apart, they share a unique connection that spans nearly two decades.
Since 2001, the upscale auction, part of Collier County’s annual Naples Winter Wine Festival, has raised more than $176 million for local children’s nonprofits, including dozens that benefit the children of Immokalee’s farmworkers, according to the Naples Children & Education Foundation, which hosts the festival.
Starting in 2002, the foundation has dedicated more than $40 million of those dollars to early education initiatives, and the results have been transformative, said foundation CEO Maria Jimenez-Laura.
In 2009, just over 50 percent of children entering Immokalee’s six elementary schools were considered “kindergarten ready,” as determined by Florida’s kindergarten screening exam, the Florida Assessment for Instruction in Reading. More than 90 percent of students in each of those schools are classified as economically needy, a figure that rises to 99 percent at four of the schools, according to the Collier school district.
That same year, more than 80 percent of students entering elementary schools in two of the highest-income neighborhoods in Naples, schools in which about 40 percent of students are considered economically needy, were deemed kindergarten ready — roughly 30 percentage points higher than their lower-income peers in Immokalee.
By 2013, the last year for which data is available, the gap between the two groups had shrunk to just 10 percent.
The narrowing gap can be attributed, in part, to rising scores at three Immokalee schools served by the Guadalupe Center, a nonprofit that offers educational programs for Immokalee’s disadvantaged preschoolers and youth. In 2013, an average of 80 percent of students attending the Guadalupe Center “feeder schools” — those in which at least 30 percent of the kindergarten class attended Guadalupe programs — were assessed as kindergarten-ready on the state test, compared to an average of 50 percent attending one of the three Immokalee nonfeeder schools. The center has received $13.7 million from the foundation since 2003.
The foundation decided to prioritize early learning funding in 2005 after commissioning the University of Florida to identify the county’s most pressing child-services gaps. The study revealed children under 5 years old lacked access to affordable, high-quality education and care, a trend that continues over a decade later.
Florida’s per-student funding is among the nation’s lowest, though the state is near the top in pre-K enrollment. At 77 percent, Florida currently has the second highest percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs in the country — a level that is more than double the national average — according to the National Institute for Early Education. But the quality of those programs is not always the best: The state ranks 42nd in funding, providing just under $2,300 per enrolled child annually — less than half the national average.
Underfunding has a particularly harmful effect in Collier County, given the area’s demographics. Though Naples is home to some the nation’s wealthiest households, nearly 70 percent of Collier public school students are classified as economically needy and half of all students do not speak English at home.
The wine festival helps to bridge the gap between rich and poor.
In 2017 alone, the auction raised more than $15 million, making it America’s highest grossing wine charity auction, according to Wine Spectator Magazine. Proceeds again surpassed $15 million in 2018, thanks in part to the Rolls-Royce, which sold for $780,000.
In addition to custom luxury cars, this year’s auction items included rare wine collections, access to exclusive star-studded events from Hollywood to Cannes and all-inclusive trips around the world aboard private jets and multimillion dollar yachts. Each year, the four-day event features private dinners hosted by famous vintners and Michelin-starred chefs, who have included Gary Danko, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck. The cost to attend the festival starts at $10,000 per couple.
According to the foundation, charities are heavily vetted by an 11-person committee and evaluated based on their ability to address the foundation’s seven strategic initiatives: oral health, medical care, hunger, mental health, afterschool programs, vision screening and early learning.
Educators at early learning centers funded by the foundation said the extra support has allowed them to take a holistic approach to educating children. Through partnerships with other foundation-funded organizations, they can not only improve the quality of instruction, but also provide students regular vision and dental exams, and give children with special needs or behavioral problems access to counselors and specialists.
“If we didn’t have the ancillary support of the other programs, we wouldn’t be treating the whole child,” said Guadalupe Center president Dawn Montecalvo. “A child with severe dental pain is not going to cooperate or learn.”
Instruction at the center goes beyond reading and counting to include both the arts and basics of a different kind: Students are given weekly music and art lessons and are taught healthy tooth-brushing habits and table manners. Officials at organizations funded by the foundation said the additional support has allowed them to outfit classrooms with smartboards and large selections of toys that encourage participation and interactive learning.
Barbara Tyrrell, the executive director of Fun Time Early Childhood Academy in Naples, said a $550,000 construction grant from the foundation in 2007 allowed them to move out of a block of trailers and into a new building.
Staff at Fun Time and Guadalupe said the preschools’ integrated family programs engage parents with their child’s education. Parents are encouraged to harness their role as their child’s first teachers by continuing the learning process at home through reading and other activities.
Some centers have been so successful that local kindergarten teachers can tell the difference between students who attended foundation-funded centers and those who did not.
Eliane Lebrun, a kindergarten teacher at Highlands Elementary, a Guadalupe Center feeder school, said the distinction becomes apparent within the first week of school.
Former Guadalupe students know the alphabet, letter sounds and have a large vocabulary, she said. They’re also accustomed to the routine and structure of a classroom setting and know how to interact with their peers, she said.
“They come ready,” Lebrun said. “It’s above every other program in town.”
The center is especially important in Immokalee where parents, many of whom are immigrants from Latin America or Haiti who lacked educational opportunities in their home countries, work long hours with low pay, Lebrun said.
“It’s a blessing for our kids because their families can’t afford that kind of care,” she said.
Immokalee native Mark Trejo, 19, an accounting student at Arcadia University near Philadelphia, attended Guadalupe’s early learning programs from the time he was 4 months old to the age of 5. In high school, he worked as a tutor at the center.
Trejo said neither of his parents had enough spare time to teach him the skills he would need to be successful in kindergarten. His father worked as a trucker and was often absent for long periods, while his mother worked full-time at a health clinic.
But Trejo excelled, and went on to take advanced classes through middle and high school. He said he even enrolled in college courses while still in high school.
“Guadalupe was really influential in exposing me to literature and getting me involved academically before I even started grade school,” he said. “I feel like it really did give me a head start.”
Trejo said he often asks himself where he would be were it not for the center, which continued to help him after he graduated high school, awarding him a $60,000 annual scholarship that covers his tuition, room, board, books and two round-trip plane tickets home per year.
“I would have had to take my education very slowly and put it second to work,” he said. “So it’s a big blessing that I’m able to be where I’m at now and not having to worry about debt.”
Guadalupe Center parents pay an average of $40 per week — a fraction of the $250 weekly it costs the center to care for each student, said Guadalupe’s Montecalvo. The state funds just three hours per day plus breakfast, lunch and a snack, she said. Parents can drop their children off as early as 7 a.m. and they can stay as late as 5:30 p.m. The center operates year-round.
Guadalupe currently serves more than 300 preschool students and, thanks to foundation funding, has plans to expand to accommodate some 200 of the nearly 600 students on their waiting list, Montecalvo said.
The NCEF funds have also given Fun Time and Guadalupe a leg up when it comes to recruiting and retaining effective teachers.
Starting preschool teacher salaries at the Guadalupe Center are upwards of $40,000 — more than $11,000 higher than the national mean and $15,000 higher than the county mean. Guadalupe administrators said teachers are also afforded a generous benefits package that includes a 3 percent match on 401K contributions and 12 paid holidays; those pursuing a bachelor’s or associate’s degree have access to an incentive program.
The organization’s teacher turnover rate has plummeted from 37 percent five years ago to 13 percent today, thanks to the foundation’s continued funding. The center has received $13.7 million since 2003, $9 million of which has gone toward early learning programs, said Montecalvo.
The funding permits the center to set higher qualifications for its staff: Each early learning classroom at Guadalupe has at least one teacher with a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, the state requires only that one pre-K instructor per class holds an associate’s certificate in child development. Foundation funding has also allowed the center to hire teaching experts to conduct weekly classroom visits to provide feedback and coaching, Montecalvo said.
The foundation has seen similar improvements at other early learning centers, including Fun Time, where many teachers said they have been employed for more than a decade. The center has received $2.5 million from the foundation since 2003.
“Whatever we need, they make sure we have it,” said Alma Williams, who’s taught multiple generations of students at Fun Time over her 48-year career there.
Williams said the most obvious change has been the expansion of teacher training opportunities, which she said have made her better equipped to help her students meet development milestones.
Having that kind of support in addition to earning a competitive salary makes her feel valued. “Otherwise I think I would’ve been gone by now,” she said.
The longevity of teachers’ careers at Fun Time has fostered a consistent and familial environment that’s been instrumental to student learning, Williams added. “Everyone works together to get the job done,” she said. “We’re their home away from home, and I’m their mom away from their mom.”
Fun Time director Tyrrell held back tears as she reflected on the impact the wine festival has had on the academy’s students, many of whom arrive at the center malnourished or suffering from health problems and developmental delays.
“They’re in the fetal position when they get here,” she said.
Harnessing the education foundation’s resources, the academy has provided hearing aids, glasses and speech and behavior therapy, among other services. That kind of holistic care combined with the loving environment created by teachers like Williams is the recipe to their success, Tyrell said.
“The children just blossom,” she said. “We’re doing something right.”
This story about preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.