Northside Independent School District added 14 new campuses to its full-day pre-kindergarten program this school year, with hopes of closing the sharp decline in enrollment the district saw in the 2020-21 school year because of the pandemic.

Now, 52 of NISD’s 81 elementary schools offer free, full-day pre-K to all students who qualify for the program, said Barbara Triplett, the district’s early childhood education specialist. This is the first time the district has expanded the program in two years, thanks in part to the roughly $250 million in federal coronavirus aid funds NISD expects to receive.

“We’ve been marching toward this goal,” Triplett said.

In Bexar County and across the country, pre-kindergarten programs experienced the largest decreases in K-12 enrollment in the 2020-21 school year. Between 2019 and October 2020, Texas saw pre-K enrollment drop 22%, according to the Texas Education Agency. Texas students are not required to attend pre-K and kindergarten.

Last school year, NISD’s pre-K enrollment dropped by almost 39% from the 2019-20 school year, according to district enrollment figures. NISD offered full-day pre-K for the first time in 2019-20, and more than 3,000 students enrolled in both the full-day and half-day programs, district spokesman Barry Perez said. That number fell to 1,855 pre-K students in 2020-21.

The program has rebounded slightly for the 2021-22 school year, with 2,341 students enrolled in the pre-K program as of Sept. 3, Perez said.

NISD will use about $2.1 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds and $1.4 million in local funds to expand to the 14 additional campuses, Perez said. The total cost of the pre-K program, which includes half-day and full-day classes, is roughly $20.3 million for the 2021-22 school year.

Anna Villanueva, who teaches pre-K at Leon Valley Elementary, said the program provides essential resources to young students, such as free breakfast and lunch, social emotional development, academics, and movement. She emphasized the importance of getting students reading independently before they enter kindergarten. Villanueva said research shows that students must have read or heard more than 1,000 books by kindergarten to be able to read by themselves.

“The earlier you can intervene in a student’s education, the higher the rate of success they will have down the road,” she said. “If a child at home doesn’t have access to that much literacy, they’re going to be falling behind by the time they start kinder. Our room is a literacy rich environment. We integrate print and literacy into everything that we do.”

The Texas school finance reform law that advanced in 2019 as House Bill 3 required all public school systems to offer full-day pre-K to eligible 4-year-olds and increased funding to help schools create those programs. Many school districts and public charter schools already offered half-day pre-K.

With that mandate in mind, Triplett said NISD examined which campuses enrolled the most economically disadvantaged students, one of the eligibility requirements for the full-day program, to decide where to expand pre-K. The district also looked at which schools had the most students with the greatest learning gaps based on standardized test scores.

To qualify for free, full-day pre-K, students must be 4 years old and meet one of the following criteria:

  • An English language learner
  • Economically disadvantaged or qualify for the free- or reduced-price lunch program
  • Homeless
  • In foster care
  • The child of an active duty military member or a parent who died while serving on active duty
  • The child of a someone eligible for the Star of Texas Award, which honors first responders killed or seriously injured on duty

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.