Founder / Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University Steven Barnett gives the keynote address.
Founder / Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University Steven Barnett gives the keynote address. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Even though Gov. Greg Abbott championed pre-kindergarten programming for young Texans in the past two legislative sessions, roughly one-quarter, or 6,000, of 4-year-olds  in San Antonio still don’t attend pre-K, according to Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray.

At Tuesday’s San Antonio Regional PK-12 Education Forum, early child educators spoke about the importance of pre-K, emphasizing the need for high-quality programs to bridge achievement gaps common in San Antonio and throughout the country.

This year’s forum, held at the Mays Family Center at the Witte Museum, was the third annual event. The forum first organized in 2016 through a collaboration with energy executive Michael Burke, the San Antonio Area Foundation, and the Rivard Report. Tuesday’s event began with a breakfast for faith leaders, featured H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt receiving the Education Champion award, and ended with a panel of education leaders.

Luncheon keynote speaker Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), delivered a sobering message to the 700 city, education, and nonprofit leaders: Texas needs to do more to provide high-quality pre-K.

While Texas ranks 10th in the nation for enrollment of 4-year-olds in a pre-K or Head Start program, with 60 percent enrolled, the programming lacks sufficient quality to assure strong educational and developmental outcomes, Barnett said. NIEER assesses pre-K programs based on 10 different categories; Texas meets four benchmarks.

“Texas is one of the worst states in terms of meeting those [standards],” Barnett said.

Texas lags in this area because there are no limits on class size, and the state lacks strong professional development requirements, Barnett said. He cited Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, and West Virginia as having exemplary programs without notably large budgets.

“How do places that do this pay for it?” Barnett asked. “Paying for it is really about public will … When politicians say, ‘We don’t have the money for that,’ they don’t mean they don’t have money. They mean they don’t have money for you.”

Other states use general revenue, school funding formulas, or income from taxes on soda, beer, property, and businesses. Barnett said some states, like West Virginia, blend local and federal funds to pay for this programming.

Barnett defined high-quality programs as having curriculum adapted to individual students, partnerships between the parents and community, and continuity between Pre-K and subsequent grades.

He used New Jersey as an example of what high-quality pre-K programming can do for students. In a series of court cases, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ordered urban school districts in 31 cities to provide high-quality pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Since that court ruling two decades ago, New Jersey cities implemented a program that limits class size to 15 students, uses evidence-based curriculum, in-class coaching for all teachers, and establishes high standards and specialized training for teachers, and at least six hours of class per day.

Barnett said this high-quality offering reduced the number of students who had to repeat grades and placements in special education programs. Specifically, he said, two years of children being enrolled in the program led to greater success than just one year. Several local programs only offer one year of Pre-K, including Pre-K 4 SA, which exclusively serves 4-year-olds.

“Cities are stepping up when states are not ready to move ahead and provide high-quality pre-kindergarten,” he said.

After Barnett’s presentation, local leaders and Texan education experts spoke about how these concepts could be applied in San Antonio.

(from left) Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard, principal of Carroll Early Childhood Education Center Alejandra Barraza, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray, Boston Consulting Group Dallas Principal Kelsey Clark, and Center of Health and Social Policy - LBJ School Public Affairs Director Cynthia Osborne.
(from left) Robert Rivard, Rivard Report publisher; Alejandra Barraza, principal of Carroll Early Childhood Education Center;Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA CEO; Kelsey Clark, Boston Consulting Group Dallas principal; and Cynthia Osborne, Center of Health and Social Policy – LBJ School public affairs director. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Baray, who spoke on the panel, oversees four centers that each serve 500 4-year-olds. Demand is high; on the first day of enrollment, 1,300 students applied for admission, Baray said.

The number of students Pre-K 4 SA can serve is driven largely by its funding mechanism, which comes from a one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 2012. This revenue provides more than $35 million each year as a working budget. In 2015, the working budget was $36.5 million.

The funding scheme will come to a vote for re-approval in 2020, at which point Pre-K 4 SA could be given the go-ahead to expand its offerings further.

“San Antonio has an important choice to make,” Barnett said of the looming ballot proposition.

This school year will be the first that a group of students who participated in Pre-K 4 SA will sit for state assessments. The class of third graders will likely set the benchmark for how city and state leaders view Pre-K 4 SA’s success.

Baray said she thinks her pre-K program will produce long-term change, starting at a foundational level. She compared pre-K education to the base level of a skyscraper.

“Pre-K is like putting your foundation in the bedrock,” she said.

Having undergone pre-K schooling doesn’t mean that students won’t face complications later on, but a stronger foundation means a student’s skyscraper, or path to graduation, won’t crumble as easily, Baray said.

“In one generation, we are going to change San Antonio’s workforce,” she added.

Other speakers on the panel agreed on the importance of a pre-K education, including Alejandra Barraza, principal at San Antonio ISD’s Caroll Early Childhood Education Center; Kelsey Clark, Dallas education consultant; and Cynthia Osborne, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School Center for Heath and Social Policy.

The question that remains, though, is how to deliver programming at a high-quality level to every child.

One solution comes from the action of local leaders.

Butt received the Education Champion Award Guests for his longstanding leadership in education advocacy.

Laura Saldivar Luna, executive director for Teach for America in San Antonio,  presented the award, saying Butt has been “completely invested” in the educational outcomes of students in the San Antonio community.

Just over one year ago, Butt announced the creation of the Holdsworth Center with an initial investment of $100 million. In its inaugural year, the Holdsworth Center selected seven districts, including Southwest ISD, to participate in a leadership development program that has included trips to Singapore, extensive training sessions, and assessments with ways to improve district operations.

“You have educated every single person in this room,” Saldivar Luna said. “You have changed the course of our lives.”

Another solution that could provide high quality pre-K offerings to a greater number of students emerged at an early-morning breakfast for education and faith leaders. Those in attendance discussed what role religious institutions could play in early-childhood education, and how they could fill in the gaps from the local, state, and national government.

“We need more help,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, encouraging those assembled to take a role in educating young San Antonians.

Libby Doggett, an early-learning consultant who has previously worked with the U.S. Department of Education, said only three states – Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin – and the District of Columbia offer pre-K programming for everyone. Her husband, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), has been a longtime champion of high-quality early child education.

Libby Doggett said New York City pulled off a “total miracle,” increasing enrollment in pre-K from 7,000 to 70,000 students in the span of two years. She said the city chose to use every available space including libraries, museums, and stores as early childhood classrooms.

This, she said, is what San Antonio should do in looking to churches as potential school houses.

“The largest natural resource in San Antonio is the faith community,” said Ann Helmke, community liaison for San Antonio’s Faith-Based Initiative. She urged her fellow religious leaders to reach out to nearby schools and ask how they could play a role in aiding children’s education.

Helmke suggested identifying where each of the 6,000 children without access to pre-K lived, and calling upon nearby congregations to take action.

“Throw a pin down,” she said, pushing for further action following the forum.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.