By Erin Carroll
Remember that bad dream: You’re about to give a speech, you stare out into a full house, no words coming to your mind because you forgot to write something? That’s exactly what it’s like to send a child to kindergarten, completely unprepared, without a pre-kinder background.
Unfortunately, this is not a bad dream for a lot of San Antonio kids. It’s reality. As a pre-K educator, I feel passionately that all of us in this city share a responsibility to better prepare four-year-old children for their education future.
Mayor Julián Castro’s Brainpower Initiative is a transformative plan. If approved by voters on Nov. 6, the Brainpower Initiative will increase the number of eligible students attending Pre-K programs, while increasing accountability in a teaching area that often is inconsistent. Providing additional support and development for students at this critical age has the potential to transform San Antonio’s future.
As a Pre-K teacher, I have the incredible opportunity to watch my four-year-old students undergo an amazing transformation. Students that enter school unable to recognize a single letter, color, number or shape but are quickly transformed into wonderfully print-literate and mathematical conversationalists. Children who complete an excellent pre-kindergarten program enter kindergarten not only prepared for new academic content, but also comfortable with school and excited to move forward.
This year, I had a student who began the school year silent, too shy to speak or participate in group instruction or play. He had never before been in an English-speaking environment, and had never spent a single day away from home. This child, who took four months to begin speaking, worked hard to become a student who knew all of his letters, letter sounds, number and colors. He ended the year enjoying school, feeling excited to explore and play. I am confident that his experience in kindergarten will be entirely different based after the transformation he underwent in Pre-K.
I spent the beginning of my first year of teaching in a kindergarten classroom. The difference between my students who had attended Pre-K as a four-year-old and those who had not was heartbreaking. My students beginning the year with no previous school experience had to catch up academically while also needing an enormous amount of teacher attention to address their adjustments to school. As a teacher it was an incredible challenge to balance the critical needs of two vastly different groups of students. My students who entered kindergarten never before experiencing a book, much less knowing letters, colors, shapes and numbers, were already behind at the age of 5.
Following my brief experience in kindergarten, I have spent my more recent years as a pre-K teacher, committed to kindergarten preparation. I have done my personal best to simultaneously nurture students’ emotional, social, academic, and behavioral needs. On a daily basis, I see the importance of Pre-K. Research from the National Institute for Early Education has shown that students participating in state Pre-K programs typically show an average of 31% growth in vocabulary and a 44% growth in math skills, compared to students who had not attended. Children in Pre-K programs transform from being advanced toddlers to independent children who are capable of making choices that will impact their academic future.
While there are many things I love about my profession, teaching Pre-K has a unique set of challenges that can be difficult to address. Pre-K is typically treated equally as another elementary grade level, but in many ways it is entirely different and its needs can fall through the cracks. Pre-K students are distinctive in their developmental needs, and teachers benefit from being specifically trained in early childhood development. Effective instruction in a Pre-K room must walk the fine line of play that is still academically rigorous and suitable for a wide range of students, a task that is not easy to master. And lastly, Pre-K classrooms need to be fairly and carefully assessed to ensure that all students are receiving excellent opportunities. As a developing teacher I know that my classroom would benefit from additional training to address these concerns.
The Brainpower Initiative suggests building local Centers of Excellence, which will provide a model of excellent Pre-K education that all teachers can strive for. Having access to additional information and assessments will give pre-kinder teachers like myself a greater base of knowledge and expectations to work from. Investing in these Centers of Excellence will provide not just an additional 700 four-year-olds the opportunity to attend Pre-K, but also a local source of support and development. The potential for achievement that exists within the Brainpower Initiative is unlimited, and in my opinion not up for debate.
One of my most demanding Pre-K students, a child who began the year with complex behavioral struggles, showed me how boundless the progress made in Pre-K can be. While he initially struggled to play kindly or participate, he was able to improve both academically and behaviorally. Having the time to work closely with him in the more flexible Pre-K environment and give him the structure he desperately needed had an immeasurable impact. This student who began the year with constant tantrums ended the year participating and enjoying school.
The opportunity to change the educational trajectory for thousands of children for an estimated $7.81 a year per taxpayer is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Students beginning Pre-K this year will be freshmen in high school in SA2020. How can we possibly begin working for the changes we need without starting from the beginning? Addressing our need for a larger and improved Pre-K program helps students who are at their greatest potential to be reached. There is no better way to do this than to support the Brainpower Initiative.
Erin Carroll is an elementary school teacher at Highland Park Gifted & Talented Academy in southeast San Antonio. She is spending her summer working with the Mayor’s office and is a Teach For America San Antonio alumnus. You can reach her at email@example.com.