Spicewood Park Elementary pre-k teacher Nancigail Arguello reads a book to her class.
Spicewood Park Elementary pre-K teacher Nancigail Arguello reads a book to her class. Southwest ISD’s school board voted in January to expand pre-K programming to all students in the district. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Less than seven years after San Antonio voters passed a measure to fund Pre-K 4 SA, a city-run program that educates 2,000 4-year-olds each school year, local school districts are now funding and expanding their own pre-kindergarten offerings.

The change is a recognition of research that shows high quality pre-kindergarten programs produce better academic and social outcomes for students. Of the estimated 25,000 4-year-olds in San Antonio, about 6,000 receive no pre-K education, said Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray.

“This is really unprecedented in terms of districts doing this on their own choosing,” Baray said. “This is the first time I have seen that districts are really saying [pre-K] is an essential component of our schools and we’re going to find a way to fund it.”

School districts receive funding from the state for half-day pre-K for qualifying 4-year-old students. Students who qualify for free pre-K include English language learners, homeless children, children of active-duty military members, or those eligible for national free or reduced-lunch programs.

Districts can choose to offer pre-K to non-qualifying students and extend the program to full-day, but must find another way to fund the programs.

Districts are trying to increase the number of children served by making the location of pre-K classes more accessible and extending the length of the school day. The changes would increase access both for students who qualify for free pre-K and those who are able to pay tuition, but would not provide universal free pre-K citywide.

Recent research from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute shows the benefits of attending a program like Pre-K 4 SA. The few hundred students in the initial Pre-K 4 SA class attended more days of school, did better on STAAR exams, and were less likely to be identified as in need of special education services than their peers who didn’t attend a public pre-K program.

“When children are in full-day pre-K programs, they outperform children in part-day programs in math, language, and social emotional skills,” said Patricia Sanchez, Northside ISD’s executive director of elementary curriculum and instruction. “That’s really the thinking behind our proposal.”

East Central ISD is adding pre-K classrooms at every campus in its vast, rural district; Northside is considering expanding its current half-day options to full-day; and Southwest ISD’s board of trustees voted to offer free full-day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in the district.

At the same time, Edgewood ISD is finalizing a deal to create an early childhood center run in partnership with Pre-K 4 SA at one of its elementary schools, and North East ISD is preparing to open a campus devoted to serving more than 400 pre-K students.

East Central improves access

One of Bexar County’s most rural districts is working to improve access to pre-K for its 4-year-olds. This school year, East Central ISD pre-K students can attend class at three elementary campuses or at the district’s East Central Development Center.

Next year, the district will offer pre-K across all six elementary campuses, making it easier for families in far-flung areas to get their students to school.

“The East Central Development Center is located on the far south end of our district, so that means if a parent on the far north end of our district wants to get there, it is a good 30- or 35-minute drive,” District spokeswoman Ashley Chohlis said. “It is a long way. We found that only the kids in that [nearby] feeder pattern [to the development center] were really coming to pre-K.”

Offering more pre-K classrooms will allow the district to serve an additional 200 4-year-olds, Chohlis said. Last school year, East Central enrolled 362 students in pre-K.

To make the spaces useable for young students, the district had to adapt some of the rooms with appropriate bathrooms and furniture. In total, ECISD appropriated $33 million from its last bond to improvements at elementary campuses, including spaces to be used by pre-K students.

Full-day or half-day?

While the state funds only half-day pre-K, some districts have allocated funds for an additional half-day of schooling. Early childhood education officials estimate this requires districts to commit at least an additional $3,000 per student each year.

Northside, the city’s largest school district is considering expanding to full-day pre-K. The district offers pre-K classes to qualifying students at most of its 79 elementary campuses and taught a little more than 3,000 pre-K students in 2017-18.

The district is expected to vote in late February on a proposal that would extend the half-day offerings to full-day with an extended-day option. The board could also vote to open up spots to tuition paying students, Sanchez said. It is unclear how much tuition would cost.

Sanchez said Northside is interested in the change because research shows full-day students receive greater benefits than half-day students. Approving the change would mean committing to costs of $5 million to $7 million with yet-to-be-identified funding sources.

Open to all 

In a move heralded as decades in the making, Southwest ISD’s school board voted in January to expand pre-K programming to all students in the district, regardless of  income or other circumstances.

Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft told the Rivard Report that while the district has wanted to tackle this idea for several decades, the board has worked more intentionally to deliver it over the last two years. With board approval, Southwest will serve 220 more students next year, the equivalent of one additional pre-K classroom at each elementary school.

The change will cost the district $1 million annually, Verstuyft said, meaning the district will have to forgo some programs.

Now that Southwest has moved to expand access for all 4-year-olds, the district may turn future attention to educating even younger students. While expanding access to 3-year-olds isn’t actively being discussed now, Verstuyft said the conversation is like “eating an elephant one bite at a time.”

New pre-K academy

North East ISD announced in October that it would be shuttering West Avenue Elementary and reopening it as an early childhood learning center in 2019-20. The North East ISD Pre-Kindergarten Academy at West Avenue will open with an estimated 420 spots for 4-year-olds.

West Avenue Elementary will soon become the North East ISD Pre-Kindergarten Academy at West Avenue. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A little more than half of the seats are saved for students living in the attendance zones of the closest three schools: Jackson-Keller, Olmos, and Dellview elementaries. The rest of the seats will be reserved for 100 other qualifying students and 100 students who pay tuition to attend. This will open up a new revenue stream for the district, said Colleen Bohrmann, NEISD’s executive director of Learning Support Services.

NEISD will charge tuition on a sliding scale. Pre-K 4 SA also uses this method, assigning tuition rates based on family income.

Since announcing the change, NEISD has hired a principal who previously worked for Pre-K 4 SA, and will soon seek board approval for construction projects that will alter the building to fit younger students.

NEISD currently serves about 1,300 pre-K students with both full- and half-day programs. Districtwide, each grade typically contains 6,000 students. Bohrmann said this discrepancy in numbers – 1,300 in pre-K and 6,000 in every other grade – shows the district isn’t reaching all 4-year-olds.

“We are thinking that there is about 2,500 qualifiers out there, so we are servicing less than half of the students that qualify,” Bohrmann said. “With this reach of West Avenue, we are wanting to reach tuition students who are not qualifiers – students and parents that want the opportunity to come to a full day pre-K site with certified teachers and high-quality instruction.”

In the future, NEISD will likely look to duplicate the pre-K academy model at another campus. NEISD will approach the decision strategically, Bohrmann said, looking at where the need exists and where there is enough space.

A potential partnership

Although no deal is final, Edgewood ISD is working with Pre-K 4 SA to convert Gardendale Elementary into a specialized early-learning center that serves pre-K to second-grade students.

The boards of both organizations have to approve the agreement and are expected to do so by the end of February. The Texas Education Agency also would have to give Edgewood and Pre-K 4 SA the go-ahead.

If approved, Pre-K 4 SA would work with the school district to run Gardendale Elementary starting next year. Pre-K 4 SA staff members would focus on pre-K and Kindergarten classes while the rest of the school’s classes phase out. Each year, Pre-K 4 SA would help with professional development and curriculum for an additional grade, all the way to second grade.

The reworked campus will allow Edgewood to add two additional classrooms to each grade level, the superintendent said, permitting more students to attend pre-K both from Edgewood and from other districts.

“We’re not relinquishing control of our campus – that’s why it is called a partnership,” Edgewood Superintendent Eduardo Hernandez said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.