Creating Pathways for Success

The Early Learning Coalition of Marion County helps improve school readiness rates for children from birth to 5 years old and offers numerous resources for parents and caregivers.

Juan Diaz, Ciana McFarlane, Wendy Williams and Patricia Gil

At first, 4-year-old Lia did not want to play with the children in the playgroup. She was attending Kaleidoscope Play and Learn, a weekly playgroup provided for free by the Early Learning Coalition of Marion County. The program is designed to give children from birth to age 5, who are unenrolled in childcare, and their caregivers, a place to play and socialize so the child can grow developmentally in preparation for kindergarten.

Lia was timid, so, in September, her grandmother Lourdes brought her to the playgroup to help her socialize and grow less fearful. Lia entered the room shyly. She hid behind her grandmother quietly upon being introduced to the room of people. Gradually, she edged out and started exploring the room, pointing at toys and acknowledging questions with a nod of her head. 

Lourdes learned from staff members how to help Lia arrive at developmental milestones. By January, Lia was talking with staff members, fixing them “sandwiches” in the play kitchen and initiating games with her young playmates. 

Leannyz Olavaria and Wendy Williams

It is this confidence and sense of security that Kaleidoscope Play and Learn seeks to foster in young children. 

ELCMC is a school readiness nonprofit that began as the Marion County School Readiness Coalition, Inc., in 1999, when the Florida Legislature created “an integrated program of school readiness services to be administered at the local level,” ELCMC’s Chief Executive Officer Carrie Theall says. 

Their goal, Theall notes, is to improve school readiness rates in children from birth to 5 years old to increase school performance, which will in turn give Marion County kids the platform for success. 

“Research tells us the economic return for investments in quality early childhood programs results in a 7 to 10 percent return,” Theall explains. “This is realized in a decrease of social service and incarceration rates. Providing high quality early education opportunities for our youngest children provides the basis for success in life for our children.”

The 501(c)(3), which has a staff of 40, provides services to families through helping walk-in parents who are applying for School Readiness vouchers to help offset the cost of childcare, assisting local childcare providers with training and guiding families in search of screenings for developmental delays, parenting programs, literacy support and more. 

ELCMC staffers also visit childcare sites and work with agency partners including Marion County Public Schools, the Marion County Children’s Alliance, CareerSource Citrus Levy Marion, United Way of Marion County, Safe Kids Marion County, Ocala/Marion County Continuum of Care and others.

In addition to Kaleidoscope Play and Learn, the coalition offers multiple programs to help prepare kids for schooling:

The School Readiness program helps families who demonstrate financial need to obtain vouchers to help ease the cost of childcare services.

Volunteer Pre-Kindergarten offers free pre-kindergarten placement for any 4-year-old, regardless of family income.

Ciana McFarlane, Amir Rucker and Taicha Olavaria

INCENTIVES$ is a salary supplement program for childcare providers and is designed to decrease turnover in the industry as well as help support childcare workers’ further education. Individuals working in childcare receive two installments of an annual financial award upon completing at least six months with the same early learning organization.

The Child Care Resource and Referral network is for parents and caregivers looking for child development resources and childcare placement.

The Help Me Grow program helps identify developmental, behavioral and educational issues with care coordinators to answer questions about child development, offer free developmental and behavior screenings and provide parenting guidance.

A 14-week program called The Incredible Years is for parents or caregivers for children ages 3 to 5 years with challenging behaviors.

There also is a program that offers free diapers and safe sleep spaces for eligible families.

With the Kindergarten Readiness rate of Marion County being the second lowest in the state of Florida, Theall says, ELCMC is making their 2024 focus the addition of an in-depth State of Early Childhood Assessment to their list of services. 

The ELCMC is one of 30 early learning coalitions in contract with the state of Florida to receive money to primarily fund the School Readiness program and the Volunteer Pre-Kindergarten program, Theall says. 

“Primarily, funding is from the state,” she offers. “However, its use is heavily restricted. We look to other funding sources to complete programs outside of our state contract. These are typically attained through grant applications.” 

ELCMC also receives smaller amounts from local organizations such as United Way of Marion County. 

“We are limited with the amount of fundraising we can complete, as state dollars will not support those activities,” Theall says. “We have participated in Give4Marion over the past several years and this has boosted our unrestricted funds that help us support parenting and literacy activities. However, we fall short for the needs of our community in those areas.”

ELCMC will host an Early Childhood Forum on April 30th at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion Auditorium, during which community members can learn more about the need for early childhood education. OS

To learn more, visit or

Patricia Gil, Leannyz Olavaria, Lourdes Montañez and Lia Hernandez
Posted in Community Spotlight, LivingTagged

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