The city’s signature early childhood education program is continuing to show signs of success as its first class of students progresses through the third grade, results that could prove meaningful when City Council members decide in late 2020 whether to continue the initiative.

Pre-K 4 SA students scored higher than national averages ranking cognitive, literacy, and math skills, according to the fourth annual independent report assessing the program’s performance. This report was the last to analyze Pre-K 4 SA students before standardized test scores from the program’s first students can be used to compare metrics.

The three skills made up half of the criteria research company Westat observed in their independent study measuring the children’s kindergarten readiness. More than 2,000 4-year-olds at Pre-K 4 SA’s four education centers began the 2016-2017 school year significantly below sampled norms, but ultimately closed gaps in oral language, physical, and social-emotional skills while excelling in the others.

“We have all four of our centers performing at very high levels,” said Sarah Baray, chief executive officer at Pre-K 4 SA. “It’s pretty clear by all measures that the program is working and its highly successful.”

This is not the first year that Pre-K 4 SA had students surpass cognitive, literacy, and math national norms, but it was the first year that all four centers shared similar consistency in their rankings, said Elaine Mendoza, chair of the Pre-K 4 SA board of directors.

“We’re encouraged by the results, but we’re not sedentary,” Mendoza said. She said one of the most important aspects of the study was seeing how there are still improvements to be made in students’ oral language, physical, and social-emotional skills.

Study results show positive student achievement utilizing a nationally recognized testing instrument, Teaching Strategies Gold Assessment, which assesses developmental skills in the following areas: cognitive, literacy, mathematics, oral language, physical, and social-emotional skills. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Westat used the Teaching Strategies GOLD measurement standard to assess kindergarten readiness. Along with readiness, the report also stated that teachers “were observed displaying high levels of emotional support and relatively high levels of classroom organization,” according to assessments through the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

Since its beginning four years ago, student attendance has been stable with an average of 92.4 percent, according to the report. The majority of students in the program are Hispanic (76.3 percent), followed by black students (9.2 percent), white students (8 percent), and other ethnicities (6.5 percent). The majority of students attend free of charge, while 9.6 percent receive scholarships and 20.4 percent pay tuition.

The program was championed by former Mayor Julían Castro, who oversaw the 2012 vote to fund it in part with a 1/8th-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase. Funding is also provided through state education dollars.

That tax increase expires in 2020. City Council will then have to decide whether or not it wants to continue the sales tax funding for the initiative. Speaking to the Rivard Report on Tuesday, some Council members expressed concerns about this year’s report.

District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse highlighted portions of the report that states some limitations of the study, such as its lack of a control or comparison group with which to compare Pre-K 4 SA’s kindergarten readiness. The report also states that certain results came from teacher reports, rather than unbiased data collection.

While expressing support for the program, both he and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) want to make sure the city’s tax dollars are being used in the best way possible for early childhood education. Perry said he wants to make sure that the city is not duplicating services offered by other programs such as the federally funded Head Start program.

Perry and Brockhouse said they also wanted to see what happened to the students after they left the program. Those metrics are determined by standardized testing in the third grade.

If students are reading at a third-grade level when they enter the grade, Baray believes it will be a mark of the program’s lasting success.

The first 750 students who went through the Pre-K 4 SA program are currently in the third grade, so the next report could include standardized test scores with which to compare metrics.

“If a child is reading on grade level at third grade, that’s a strong indicator that they are on a trajectory for success in later grades,” Baray said.

She said the potential challenges for continuing the program past 2020 are the constant need for City resources in areas such as transportation and infrastructure. She hopes San Antonians see the value the program offers long term.

“By investing in the people of San Antonio, particularly their children, this is a long term endeavor to set San Antonio up for success,” Baray said. “If you want to have a strong community, and if you want to have a strong economy, the best investment a community can make is in early childhood education.”

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.