Four-year-old Jesse Breeden was awed by the high school cheerleaders who had formed a tunnel, their pompoms rustling, to greet the newest students at North East Independent School District: more than 300 tots who enrolled to become the first cohort in the district’s new full-day pre-K academy. Jesse could tell this was a special occasion.

“He thinks this is his birthday party,” said Jesse’s mom, Laura Breeden, who witnessed the youngest of her three sons enter school this week. “I teared up when I saw that because it got real for me.”

The first day of North East ISD’s first full-day facility dedicated to early childhood education on Monday was the culmination of a nearly yearlong transformation of the school from a decades-old elementary school to a prekindergarten academy. The school admits students from throughout the Legacy of Educational Excellence (LEE) High School school cluster as well as a select number of students who live outside that feeder pattern but in the district.

Families arrive for orientation at the first standalone pre-K facility in NEISD.

Interim Superintendent Sean Maika spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony this month about the impact the school would have on the students in the area. A member of the Parent Teacher Association told him the investment in full-day pre-K would change the “academic trajectory” of the neighborhood.

“I think that truly sums up what we are trying to do for this area and for the LEE cluster as a whole,” Maika said.

But some in the West Avenue Elementary School community were distraught last September when they learned of the district’s plans to convert the school into a pre-K academy.

“We just sat there and processed it,” said Nancy Rangel, formerly the PTA president of the school. “It was shocking because at the time my daughter was a fourth grader. I thought about having to tell her [she would need to change schools].”

It was a bit of a source of trauma for the children of West Avenue who would have to attend a new school and likely have to make new friends. Some teachers were retained for the pre-K academy, but many had to find new employment.

For Rangel’s daughter Clarissa, moving to Dellview Elementary School was made easier by the fact that six teachers from West Avenue transferred to Dellview, including Clarissa’s fourth grade teacher. Clarissa hugged her former teacher on the first day of school, Rangel said.

Losing West Avenue was especially tough for Rangel less than a year after her high school alma mater was renamed. Rangel opposed changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School to LEE High School.

“That is a little bit of a hard pill to swallow,” she said. “It all goes back to the conversation I had with my child: ‘You have to understand there is always going to be change and transition in your life. … It’s all going to be OK. These are just life lessons, unfortunately.”

Alumni like Christina Vela-Flores said West Avenue felt like a “forgotten” school in its waning years. With a decreasing headcount, the school received fewer and fewer dollars from the State. According to the Texas Education Agency, the school spent $9,862 per student in the 2017-18 school year, about $3,000 less than the district average of $13,083.

Vela-Flores lamented the loss of the school. She said now that the school has been converted into a pre-K academy, it is no longer a truly public school because only certain students will qualify for tuition-free education at the school. Eligibility criteria include a parent having a military background, qualifying for free or reduced lunch, not being able to speak English, and being homeless. The rest of the students admitted into the program have to pay tuition of up to $5,000 per year.

“How is that fair to the whole of San Antonio?” Vela-Flores said. “It’s really not. You’re still limiting access to a portion of that age group in the city.”

North East ISD made the decision to close the school last year after an 18 percent decline in enrollment from 2013 to 2018.

NEISD has among some of Bexar County’s highest rates of transfers out of the district. Since 2013, between 5,000 and 7,500 students have left the district each school year – many of them to enroll in area charters such as Idea Public Schools, Great Hearts, and Basis.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, enrollment in public charter schools has increased from about 103,000 to 317,000, accounting for a more than 200 percent jump. Charter school students now make up nearly 6 percent of the public school population in Texas, according to a report released this year by the Texas Education Agency.

But the rise of charters has posed challenges for traditional public schools, whose funding is determined by enrollment and school attendance.

In a letter to parents and staff last year, the district cited its enrollment issues for closing the school and proposing a new pre-K academy.

“The loss of students throughout NEISD has a direct and negative impact on our ability to properly fund our classrooms,” the letter from then-Superintendent Brian Gottardy stated. “Fewer students mean less money for the NEISD. Compounding the problem is the fact that the state legislature refuses to adequately fund traditional public schools. There is no new housing development planned in the school’s surrounding area to increase student enrollment.”

The research behind full-day and free or low-cost prekindergarten says it leads to better academic results, but NEISD also is making a bet that a pre-K academy can help retain students in the district. If children enter the system by way of the pre-K school perhaps their parents will be less inclined to enroll them in private or charter schools the following year.

“If we are able to serve families in pre-K they do choose to stay with us,” said Paul Kienlen, principal of the pre-K academy. “So if we do provide that excellent first experience they will … stay with us for many years.”

Paul Kienlen, principal of the pre-K academy at West Avenue.

The Pre-K Academy at West Avenue had enrolled 342 students as of the first day of school on Monday. The academy is targeting a maximum enrollment of 400 4-year-olds this year, Kienlen said.

In all, 20 classrooms have been installed, and each of them can hold 20 students. About four of those classrooms will accommodate dual-language students – who will be instructed half in Spanish and half in English.

Breeden’s three children have all studied Spanish in NEISD dual-language programs.

While the closure of West Avenue Elementary brought a tinge of sadness for alumni and former parents at the school, it is an opportunity to expand the reach of low-cost and free early childhood education for families like the Breedens – and a head start for Jesse.

“I think it definitely sets a tone going into kindergarten,” said Jesse’s father, Jon Breeden, “less fear, more confidence.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.