Pre-K 4 SA is off and running. Or rather, off and doing jumping jacks. That’s what the four-year-olds in after-school care were doing when I paid a visit to the Pre-K 4 SA South Center during the second week of school.
I watched for a little while through the observation window as the students participated in pint-sized calisthenics led by a smiling and energetic staff member. They skipped in place, they hopped, they touched their toes. They bounced around randomly, as small children do when they are having fun.
Pre-K 4 SA CEO Kathy Bruck watched with me, pointing out various kids doing hilarious things. With the first two weeks behind her, Bruck has been pleasantly surprised at how smoothly things have gone, which gives her time to stop and appreciate things like pee-wee aerobics.
Meanwhile, the cheerful receptionists were helping families complete the ID check process and get security badges that would allow them to proceed into the classroom area to retrieve their pre-schooler. No one was frustrated or snappy or distracted. The whole atmosphere was simply pleasant and efficient.
Bruck said that the parents had a hard time with the rigorous security measures at first, but in only two short weeks have come to appreciate that their children are safe and well-guarded. It fits into the whole picture of how much the center values its charges.
“It really is a community in a way that is unique to any place I’ve ever been,” said Kelly McManus, one of the Pre-K Master Teachers.
The comradery among the teachers and their passion for their jobs is obvious, even from my perch in the lobby. Everyone who passes by has a bounce in their step and a relaxed smile as they greet me. Yes. I’m sitting there in the lobby and passers-by are greeting me like I’m sitting in their living room.
McManus attributes some of the good vibes to the excitement the teachers have about what they are teaching. The blended curriculum has allowed the Master Teachers to use their gifts and education to engage students. That ownership encourages them to be creative and innovative.
“It energizes you to be in this environment,” McManus said.
The stress-free family atmosphere extends beyond the lobby. At lunch time, I’m told, the teachers sit with the students at the table where they practice manners. Napkins in laps. Taking turns talking. The teachers eat what the students eat, which McManus does not mind one bit.
The students eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks at the center. Meals include a variety of vegetables, hummus, mannicotti, and a host of other options to expand the young palates. The teachers have been asked to survey the children’s likes and dislikes in order to help the chefs tailor the meals for success. So far the only wide-spread negative feedback is that the students would prefer for their vegetables not to touch each other on the plate. Bruck (laughing) says that this request seems entirely do-able.
Bruck told one story of a student who met his parent at the door excitedly announcing, “Mom! Mom! I ate broccoli!”
The four-year-olds have shown an innate taste for orderliness as well. They file in from the transportation vans like little elephant parades, holding onto each other’s backpacks (which reach from the back of their necks to the back of their knees) as they are deposited in their classrooms. The transportation assistants report to the teachers any helpful information gleaned on the ride to school.
Even prime opportunities for chaos have been remarkably placid. When the fire alarms went off on the fifth day of school, the students covered their ears and cleared the building in 2.5 minutes. They patiently stood in their lines in the parking lot with little comment, other than one confused child who asked when they were going to be “rescued.” His teacher then explained the rather unexciting concept of a mandatory monthly fire drill.
Smooth operations were a pleasant surprise to Bruck. Having the whole program up and running with 350 kids and no incidents of note is quite a feat. But then, there have been many surprises in the monumental accomplishment of getting Pre-K 4 SA to where it is.
“It’s been such a surprise to see the community jump in,” McManus said.
The after school program is one area where the community is jumping in. Professionals are giving their time to bring in specialty programming to the center, allowing teachers to relinquish the steering wheel and have fun alongside their students. Programming will expose the students to everything from Zumba to science to drum circles to visual arts. The Children’s Museum, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Arts San Antonio are among the organizations giving their time and energy to enriching the school day for students and teachers.
All of this has already had an effect on the kids, who are sometimes so wrapped up in projects that they don’t want to leave. The parents see this, and already the discourse surrounding “school” has begun to change for these families. For many parents, schools represent punitive systems where reprimands are doled out more often than encouragements. The idea that school could be a place of cooperation and community is a new concept being forged for many in the halls of Pre-K 4 SA.
This is the key to the change Bruck and the Pre-K 4 SA team want to see. Parents who know how good school can be, and will fight for that experience to continue into their child’s future.
“If we don’t work to get parents to advocate then we’ve just given them a great year,” said McManus.
More than just a year, Pre-K 4 SA aims to give San Antonio’s children the foundation for a great education.
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.