Pre-K 4 SA West Center is part of the City of San Antonio’s early learning initiative. Credit: Courtesy / Pre-K 4 SA

Pre-K 4 SA‘s first-come, first-served enrollment will open Thursday for the 2018-19 school year. Only 2,000 spots are available at the City-run program’s four centers, and organization officials say each center’s 500 student spots fill up quickly.

The pre-kindergarten program reserves 80 percent of its 2,000 spots for San Antonio’s neediest children – those who qualify for free tuition because of their income level or life circumstances. Those children must live within San Antonio’s city limits or within the City’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and within the boundaries of East Central Independent School District, Edgewood ISD, Harlandale ISD, North East ISD, Northside ISD, San Antonio ISD, Southside ISD or Southwest ISD. These eight districts are partners of the program and serve 70 percent of San Antonio students, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said.

In addition, to qualify for free tuition, a student must meet one of the following requirements, as outlined by the Texas Education Agency:

  • be eligible for the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program or receive SNAP or TANF benefits;
  • be unable to speak or comprehend English;
  • be homeless as identified by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act;
  • be a child of an active-duty member of the U.S. armed forces ;
  • be a child of a U.S. armed services member who was injured or killed while serving on active duty;
  • be or have been in the conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services following an adversary hearing;
  • or be a child of a Star of Texas Award eligible recipient. The Star of Texas Awards honor Texas peace officers, firefighters, and emergency medical first responders who are seriously injured or killed on the job.

In 2016-17, 89.9 percent of children in Pre-K 4 SA qualified for free tuition based on income eligibility. A total of 20.4 percent of students paid to attend the program, and 9.6 percent did so based on scholarship. The majority of total students were Hispanic (76.3 percent).

The remaining 20 percent of unreserved spots go toward students whose parents will pay tuition based on a sliding, income-based scale. Students not living within one of the eight partner school districts may qualify for these spots.

Pre-K 4 SA’s 2,000 slots comprise just a small percentage of the number of eligible children throughout San Antonio. A recent University of Texas at San Antonio report based on census data from 2015 estimates there are approximately 25,000 4-year-olds living in San Antonio. Of those, approximately 20,000 students would be eligible for free tuition.

Because students may come from homes that experience the “digital divide” in San Antonio — the 9.4 percent of homes with a computer, but no internet access, or the 6.6 percent of San Antonio homes without any computer — Pre-K 4 SA offers enrollment options not just online, but also in person at one of the four centers, or over the phone.

Pre-K 4 SA works to reach out to families who may not have access to a computer via TV and radio spots, news stories, and community events. In addition, the program sends enrollment teams to places where “families typically go,” including grocery stores, community centers, parks, and shopping centers.

Baray said the program’s North Center, located at 3635 Medical Dr., tends to fill up fastest of the four. Families can choose the center location they prefer as long as space remains available.

“Throughout the year, families move and circumstances change, and we do try to accommodate families as best as we can,” Baray said of family moves during the school year.

The program was first created in 2012 when San Antonio voters approved an eighth of a cent sales tax diversion to fund the program. In 2013, the program opened the first two centers on the Northside, the Medical Drive location, and Southside, at 7031 S. New Braunfels. Seven hundred students enrolled in the first year of operations.

In 2014, Pre-K 4 SA opened an additional two centers on the Eastside, at 5230 Eisenhauer Rd., and Westside, at 1235 Enrique M. Barrera Memorial Parkway.

Pre-kindergarten programming for 4-year-olds is just one facet of the program’s overarching mission. Pre-K 4 SA also provides $4.2 million in grants to educators across the city and free professional development to early childhood teachers who educate students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

In 2018, the first cohort of students from Pre-K 4 SA will take a state assessment, and how they perform on the tests will provide data by which the program’s effectiveness likely will be measured.

As a prelude to this five-year progress report, the program has been evaluated consistently during its previous four years of operation. Most recently, research firm Westat conducted an independent evaluation and found students made significant gains as a result of program participation.

Using the Teaching Strategies’ GOLD model, Westat evaluated students prior to the program and then again upon completion. Westat found children at the beginning of the year performed below the national norm on five out of six of the evaluation’s assessment categories. At the end of the year, Pre-K 4 SA students surpassed the average in of cognitive, literacy and mathematics areas. Students also eliminated any existing gap in the focus areas of oral language, physical, and social-emotional.

“Our children came into pre-kindergarten significantly below the normed sample in five out of six GOLD outcomes. By the end of the school year, our students closed the gaps and were more prepared for kindergarten and beyond,” Baray said.

The program’s funding mechanism reaches an expiration date in 2020, should city council not take action to renew it. In November, some city council members expressed concerns over the success of the program.

Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Greg Brockhouse (D6) both said they wanted to see results from children after leaving the program. These results will likely be made available from STAAR results in the 2017-18 school year.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.