Keynote speaker Robert Pianta, an early education childhood expert from the University of Virginia speaks to the importance of early childhood development.
Keynote speaker Robert Pianta, an early education childhood expert from the University of Virginia, speaks about the importance of early childhood development.

In decades studying 15,000 classrooms, early education expert Robert Pianta has discovered that two out of every five children entering kindergarten are unprepared in critical areas of social skills, math, and self-regulation.

“These rates of struggle are greater and even bigger in many of our more vulnerable communities,” Pianta told the audience at the fourth annual San Antonio Regional PK-12 Public Education Forum on Tuesday afternoon.

The Tuesday luncheon was the culmination of the Education Forum, which featured a breakfast panel on Alamo Colleges’ proposed Alamo Promise tuition plan and a luncheon discussion and keynote address on early childhood education.

Laura Saldivar Luna, Teach for America USA’s vice president of people, was awarded the 2019 Education Champion Award in recognition of her work in the San Antonio education sector.

In her acceptance speech, Saldivar Luna credited several women in her life who encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

The TFA executive recalled her mother taking her to Jefferson High School as a young girl, pointing out the locations on the campus to get her excited for a future high school experience.

“She would tell me, ‘Laura this is your school, one day this will be your school,’ ” Saldivar Luna said. “That was the first moment I remember my mom declaring out a possibility for me.”

Now, Saldivar Luna said she focuses on the possibility of elevating educational opportunities for all students in her role at TFA.

Suzanne Wade, president of H-E-B San Antonio’s Food and Drug Division who introduced Saldivar Luna, read from a prepared statement from Charles Butt, the 2018 Education Champion Award recipient who selected Saldivar Luna to start San Antonio’s TFA chapter. In the statement, Butt called Saldivar Luna a “visionary leader.”

“People like Laura do not merely hope, they act and we are all better for it,” Wade said reading from the statement.

Laura Saldivar Luna was selected as the 2019 Education Champion Award during the fourth annual Education Forum.
Laura Saldivar Luna was selected as the 2019 Education Champion Award during the fourth San Antonio Regional PK-12 Education Forum. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In his keynote address, Pianta said that when kids fall behind, they don’t catch up. The community can invest in closing these gaps by devoting attention and resources to high-quality early childhood education programs, he said.

Following Pianta’s speech, a panel moderated by Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard featured speakers involved in early childhood education. They talked about how the local community could invest in providing a high-quality learning environment for all of the area’s youngest students.

East Central Independent School District Superintendent Roland Toscano described how his rural district, which covers about 280 square miles, lacked access to the same early childhood learning resources that are available in urban areas.

“Certainly in our area, … with regard to early childcare providers on one end of the continuum and early learning centers on the other end of the continuum, I would say we are a desert in both,” Toscano said.

For years, the district offered pre-kindergarten at an early childhood learning center at the southernmost region of ECISD. Getting to the center became an obstacle for some families, Toscano said.

The superintendent and other district officials noticed this challenge and decided to locate an early childhood center at every elementary campus in the district, thereby spreading the services around ECISD. These centers will open in fall 2019.

Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, spoke about the need for more voices advocating for quality early education.

“San Antonio leads in so many different ways in the early learning space, and yet we weren’t at the table when [early learning] policy was being developed,” Baray said.

For that reason, Baray is at work with other education leaders in San Antonio to form a local chapter of Early Matters. The group will work to elevate the issue of early education in the business community and shape policy to allow for better education services.

Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, responds to the possibility of starting early education programs for students at the age of 3. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Baray said there is already a group of practitioners and organizations that meet through ReadyKidSA, so Early Matters San Antonio should focus more on policy and advocacy.

Early Matters San Antonio’s policy and advocacy could focus on the discussion around school finance happening at the state. On Wednesday, legislators in the Texas House are expected to debate House Bill 3, an omnibus bill to reform the school finance system.

If passed in its current form, HB 3 would provide funding for full-day pre-k to eligible students. The state currently funds half-day pre-k and districts have to finance the rest if they want to offer a full day of programming.

Raise Your Hand Texas’ Director of Advocacy and Outreach Libby Cohen cautioned the audience that full-day pre-k support is not a “lock” in the Texas Senate. She told the audience their homework was to return home and call their senators to rally support for better funding for early education.

Moving forward, Kasi McCormick, the vice president of grants at United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, also had some homework for the assembled crowd. She encouraged the audience to follow the work at ReadyKidSA and join to help build upon the existing work.

“[At ReadyKidSA], we took over 100 partners over the last four years and coalesced around data and how we co-fund and how do we make sure we are doing what is right for all children and families,” McCormick said. “We are always looking for additional partners.”

This collaborative attitude is one of the reasons Pianta told the audience that he remains “bullish” on improving educational outcomes for young students. When educating 4-year-olds was first being discussed, he said, the conversation focused on the “height of the furniture and the depth of the mulch” more than the curriculum and efficacy of teaching.

Now, he said, the focus is far more on the relationship between the teacher and the student. But the challenge of getting the 40 percent of students who enter kindergarten unprepared remains.

“[We’ve] got a long way to go,” said Pianta, who is the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “The change has been tectonic and it needs to be tectonic.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.