Courtesy of the City of San Antonio
Bekah S. McNeel

San Antonians made a bold choice last November, voting by a comfortable margin to support Mayor Julián Castro’s Pre-K 4 SA initiative. Elaine Mendoza, chairman of the Pre-K board, appreciates that boldness, and plans to deliver in kind.

Step One: launch a national search and find a difference-maker.

That difference-maker, it turns out, is Kathy Bruck, a passionate and progressive San Antonio educator who brought model programming to Harlandale ISD for 37 years. In fact, that’s how they found her.

Mendoza and the rest of the Brain Power Task Force visited Bruck’s early childhood centers when they were seeking inspiration for what would become Pre-K 4  SA.  Bruck was named CEO in May, and since then, has been innovating non-stop. She has to or else: On August 26, 700 4-year-olds are showing up at the first two centers, ready to learn.

Bruck is not going about business as usual with these centers. Pre-K 4 SA is not glorified daycare. Each class of 18 will have a Master Teacher, a Teaching Assistant, and a Team Leader who rotate between three classrooms on the lookout for students who need extra attention. The Team Leader will be a familiar face who is also available to substitute for absent teachers without disrupting the student’s learning environment. Team Leaders are also trained in Special Education, so they can spot learning disabilities and unique needs early.

Kathy Bruck and Elaine Mendoza of Pre-K 4 SA.
Kathy Bruck and Elaine Mendoza of Pre-K 4 SA.

As she sifted through the 500-plus applications for Master Teachers, Bruck found herself on Skype with applicants in Japan and Alaska, and interviewing candidates from California to Virginia. While a good many of the jobs went to San Antonians, she hired the best, which meant casting a wide net. In addition to experience and educational qualification, what she looked for was passion, energy, vision, and innovation.

One more quality separated the ideal candidates from the crowd. Bruck, Mendoza, and the board want Master Teachers who are not afraid to try new things – even if they fail. They aren’t looking for bags of tried-and-true tricks. They are looking for a faculty with the potential to effect systemic change.

Pre-K 4 SA wants to change the way San Antonio approaches education.

Staff members also will include “coaches,” experienced Master Teachers who were serving in development or support roles in their current job. Coaches will serve in a support role at the Pre-K centers as well, for the center staff, and for the participating school districts. This could be key to the real success of the students. One year of top-notch education is not enough. The engagement needs to continue into elementary school.

“How do you spread the innovation?” Mendoza asks, rhetorically.

That’s where the “4 SA” part of the program really shines. The centers and their staff will be available to train teachers and early childhood specialists across the city. Their classrooms include observation windows so that coaches can conduct training in real-time. They also will make campus visits to conduct workshop with teachers through the third grade. With improved literacy metrics one of the program’s main charges, Mendoza and Bruck know it behooves them to work with the teachers who await the Pre-K 4 SA graduates.

Mendoza knows taxpayers are watching, waiting to see if the initiative live ups to Castro’s vision and campaign promises.

“We have to deliver,” she said, “We have to.”

She’s right. The program is on the ballot again in eight years. It passed comfortably the first time, 53.5% for, and 46.5% against after a remarkable early voting total that ended in nearly a dead tie, proponents edging opponents by a scant 87 votes with more than 260,000 votes cast. To remain the subject of broad support, Mendoza knows Pre-K 4 SA will have to deliver measurable results.

Mayor Castro stretches to shake hands
Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd at La Fonda on election night, just before the Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Supporters have set their sights even further than eight years ahead. Each student this year will receive a backpack donated by H-E-B that reads “Class of 2027” (yes, that should make you feel really old).

So how do they plan to do it? How do they plan to change the lives of these tiny San Antonians and win the vote in 2020?

Two ways: innovative teaching and holistic engagement.

The formal curriculum is Frog Street Press, a favorite among educators. However, teachers are encouraged to think big as they use project-based learning, especially in areas of math and science. Children will be expected to effectively problem solve, think creatively, and demonstrate hands-on learning.

“Everything we do, we want to come from the kids’ experience,” Bruck explained.

Courtesy of the City of San Antonio

This is the sort of conversation one might have when interviewing at competitive private preschools, and Kathy Bruck is bringing it to kids who, by necessity, do not have access to such advantages. To be eligible for Pre-K 4 SA students must meet state requirements for public pre-school enrollment.  They also have a 10% sliding scale to enroll students who do not quite meet the eligibility, but still would clearly benefit from the program.

Applications into the program will be accepted at all SAISD Elementary campuses during an enrollment event starting today and continuing tomorrow at 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and again from 1-4 p.m. Visit for more information.

Mendoza and Bruck do not shy away from the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the demographics they serve, in and out of the classroom. Star Shuttle and Charter Services won the bid to provide specialized transportation from hubs in areas served by the centers. Because the students are so small, each bus is outfitted with built-in child safety seats, and an additional chaperone – a familiar face for parents and students alike , to help shepherd four-year-olds put on a bus without a parent along.

Pre-K 4 SA is taking another step toward holistic engagement by addressing the issue of parent involvement, an issue that has long perplexed urban educators.

Many parents in San Antonio have a fraught relationship with their children’s schools. School for them equates with failure and unhappy memories, a system they never learned how to navigate. Kids have a hard time participating when their parents don’t trust or value the school system, or simply don’t know how to support their child’s learning.

IDEA Public Schools' students participate in whole group instruction as part of their daily instruction.
Photo courtesy of IDEA Public School.

Pre-K 4 SA aims to change that relationship. Each campus has a parent resource room, with coffee, snacks, and two family specialists on duty to help parents sort through the practical and emotional challenges they face. The at-risk student’s curriculum includes opportunities to bring in parents as experts to participate in classroom projects. The school’s nutrition program, which will include a children’s garden, will extend to parents. These programs are not scheduled yet, because Bruck and her team plan to schedule them with interested parents, to accommodate their schedules.

It’s rare in the life of a city that voters are so bold as to start a new educational program from scratch, and provide educators with the support, funding and independence to deploy the latest innovations and research. Pre-K 4 SA is not wasting that opportunity. They have looked at the challenges of San Antonio schools, and they are tailoring a program that could forever change for the better what it means to get an education in San Antonio.

If Mendoza and Bruck succeed, the city’s next early vote shouldn’t be quite as close as the last.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.