The Austin Chronicle

Varying Visions

By Rachel Proctor May, March 3, 2006, News

"Austin ISD wants to build a Volkswagen. We want a Lincoln Continental."

That was the way Success by Six spokeswoman Brenda Thompson described the difference between AISD's vision for prekindergarten education and that of Austin's community of early childhood nonprofits. In a paper titled "Ensuring High Quality Pre-K Services: A Vision for Our Children's Future," endorsed by some 25 organizations, Success by Six praised AISD's engagement with the early-childhood issue, but offered significant critiques of the district's plans, which are careening toward a March 6 decision by the Board of Trustees.

If trustees give it a go-ahead, AISD will this fall begin a bold foray into a pilot prekindergarten center located at Lucy Read, a former school that AISD now uses for teacher development. That's only the beginning: Later that month, the board will decide whether to add two more centers at Becker and Oak Springs elementaries, thus ending their lives as elementary schools. Success by Six says AISD has plans for 10 centers by 2010. (Oddly, AISD has kept such plans on the down-low in the Vision 2010 roadshow Forgione has shopped around the district, but Forgione did confirm that such centers could come out of a possible 2007 bond issue.)

AISD currently offers prekindergarten services for low-income, limited-English, or special needs 4-year-olds at 51 elementaries. Dedicated centers will not necessarily serve more students; the idea is that centralization will make them incubators for high-quality teachers and curricula. According to Success by Six, however, the cutting edge of early childhood education is a "mixed delivery" model in which AISD doesn't go at it alone, but instead works with existing child care centers and programs. "Rather than create 10 freestanding centers and transport very young children to such facilities, careful thought should be given to the possible utilization and further optimal coordination of existing resources, public and private," the paper reads.

In a mixed-delivery model, AISD teachers could be placed in private or faith-based day care centers to ensure children are getting a dose of Toddler Einstein along with their graham crackers and juice boxes. Meanwhile, nonprofits would place staff on AISD sites to provide low-income parents the social services they need. This is not the sort of thing AISD has in the works. Thus, the paper very, very politely suggests that maybe the district should be barking up a different tree: Its list of things AISD should "carefully consider" are the value of neighborhood elementaries (which would be lost if converted to pre-K centers), the logistical hassles for families with both pre-K and elementary-aged students, and the emotional impacts of pre-kindergarteners changing schools at the age of five.

Forgione says AISD is enthusiastic about working with Success by Six to make sure future centers fit the group's vision. "I want the mixed-delivery model," he said. "I want the wrap-around service model, with mental health, social work, other collaborative services I can't afford to put there."

Trustees expressed concerns of their own. Because the proposal first emerged as a way to deal with crowding in north-central elementaries Wooldridge, McBee, Cook, and Walnut Creek (by moving their pre-K classes to Lucy Read, AISD can fit more older kids; Wooldridge was later dropped from the list) some wondered whether the proposal was more about facilities management than educational best practices. And if it is a facilities management plan, it's not a very complete one, with explosive growth expected to continue in north-central Austin and no new schools planned. "I will call this a Band-Aid solution," said trustee Rudy Montoya. "By 2010, we're at a crisis point in this area."

Despite the concerns, both the trustees and Success by Six praised AISD for looking at ways to improve pre-K education, which many believe helps children from disadvantaged families catch up cognitively to children from households rich with educational toys, books, and experiences. The question is whether AISD's model could still use some souping-up. "The thing I'm getting is, 'do it right,'" said trustee Mark Williams. "Quality, quality, quality."

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