The program, thought up by philanthropists Mary Kay and Joe Henson, will focus on preparing students below the poverty line to start reading on grade level.
Gocio Elementary will be the first school in the county that provides regular preschool opportunities to students, thanks to a grant of up to $700,000 provided by local philanthropists Joe and Mary Kay Henson.
“Getting an early start is huge for children to build a strong foundation,” said Steven Royce, principal of Gocio Elementary.
The program includes a three-year study to gauge the academic impact of early-childhood education. Ideally, the program will give students a strong foundation that will prepare them for school, including letter and number recognition, pronunciation and phonics, Royce said.
The idea for the program came after the Hensons took a summer trip to the Northeast to understand best early-education practices.
“Everyone said you’ve got to get the children as early as you can get them, and that you really need quality preschool education,” Mary Kay Henson said. “And so that’s why we made this proposal. We think it will really help them get a solid footing going forward to attain grade level by third grade.”
Joe Henson said the program is an attempt to reach the 52% of Sarasota County’s children who live below the poverty line.
“[They] start with a lot of different stresses in their life, [and are] a year and a half to two years behind by the time they start school,” he said. “All of this is an attempt to overcome that deficit.”
“These children can learn just as well as an advantaged child could learn if they’re given the opportunity,” Mary Kay Henson added.
For the first year, Gocio Elementary will start one class of 18 students, led by a teacher and a teacher’s aide. In the second and third years, it will accept two classes of 18 students. And after they complete the preschool program, students will be able to transition to Gocio’s Summer Learning Academy, giving participating students the benefit of a full calendar year of academic learning before kindergarten.
The Hensons are also responsible for the Eagle Academy at Alta Vista Elementary — a two-generation program that prepares students in the summer for the coming school year, while giving parents the job skills they need. Similar summer academies are now being implemented at schools across the county, which is what the Hensons hope will happen with Gocio’s preschool program.
“Education is a great leveler,” said Mary Kay Henson, “and so I very much would like those children to have a good shot to have a great life the way I have.”