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Pre-K classes a priority for Texas districts, study finds

Dallas Morning News
September 29, 2014

By Eva-Marie Ayala

Getting more youngsters into prekindergarten classes is a priority for Texas school districts, but finding the money to do so is difficult, according to a study released Monday.

Children at Risk, a Houston-based education advocacy group, conducted a yearlong study to assess the current state of prekindergarten programs in Texas. It found that despite financial challenges and dramatic statewide education funding cuts in 2011, Texas school districts were picking up the tab locally or finding creative partnerships to expand access.

“I expected to hear horror stories,” said Bob Sanborn, the group’s president and CEO. “But surprisingly, what I heard was that districts were not only keeping pre-K despite the cuts, but many were expanding to full-day.”

In fact, the study found that 47 percent of the 631 districts responding to the group’s survey offered full-day programs. But many districts indicated that when they did expand offerings, other programs were hurt because finances shifted.

In general, Texas school districts must offer prekindergarten classes to those who meet requirements. The state provides funding for eligible students, who include those from poor families, those with a parent in active duty in the military, and those with limited English skills.

The report highlights various districts taking aggressive steps to boost access to pre-K, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Princeton and Lancaster.

Lancaster put on an aggressive campaign in recent years to increase pre-K enrollment that included sending information with utility bills, going door to door, and holding community meetings. Three years ago, the district expanded its full-day program to include 3-year-olds. Families pay $10 per day to participate in that full-day program.

Those 3-year-olds who first participated in the expanded program are now in kindergarten. Helena Mosley, an assistant superintendent in Lancaster, noted that those youngsters heard thousands of new words in pre-K. One study has found that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words than their peers by age 3.

“You see a large word gap between our low socioeconomic students and our more affluent students in kindergarten,” Mosely said. “But with our students who went to pre-K at 3, they are performing just as well and know just as many words as their peers. We are working to close that word gap.”

Meanwhile, Dallas has partnered with various groups to expand offerings, has pre-K specialists and is looking to reduce its pre-K student-to-staff ratio to 8-to-1. Fort Worth is moving toward a universal pre-K model that would provide the classes to all 4-year-olds. And in Collin County, Princeton offers a full-day program with the district providing busing to eligible children.

In the last few years, policy makers nationwide — from President Barack Obama to the nation’s mayors — have focused attention on expanding early childhood education opportunities. This month, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced that he would seek $120 million in federal grants for pre-K.

With the legislative session approaching, many education advocates want legislators to take note of this study. Children at Risk wants:

To ensure transparency of prekindergarten assessments and program quality by increasing the data available to the public about those programs.

To expand funding and require that it be contingent upon the implementation of a maximum class size of 20 or staffing ratio of 10-to-1.

To create incentives for districts to offer full-day pre-K by providing additional money through state funding formulas or by establishing a sustainable grant program for districts to expand.

Mary Jalonick, president of the Dallas Foundation, one of the study’s funders, said the report highlights the best practices in Texas.

“Early childhood education and pre-K access has been proven to be a success factor for children,” Jalonick said. “And we want our legislators to have this [study] because they are the ones that can truly help us make a difference by providing the funding.”