AISD Expands Pre-K

Program will prep 3-year-olds for kindergarten

Zavala Elementary (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Teaching kids can be hard. But much harder, and arguably more vital, is teaching kids how to learn. Austin ISD has just announced a massive expansion of its pre-K program for 3-year-olds for the 2016-17 school year, giving the district an extra year to get kids ready for the full classroom experience.

AISD's Pre-K3 program was born from a very simple need: According to the nonprofit E3 Alliance, only 50% of students entering kindergarten are ready for the challenge. Jacquie Porter, AISD's director of early childhood education, said, "Many of our kids, when they walk through the [kindergarten] door, have the vocabulary of a 2-year-old."

Out of the 7,000 kids currently in AISD-provided kindergarten, 4,000 went through pre-K. Currently, the district offers free all-day pre-K to all children age 4 at the beginning of the school year. However, by adding 3-year-olds to the equation, the district hopes to increase the impact of early childhood education. The Pre-K3 program, which is now accepting applications, is open to the highest-need students: English-language learners and kids eligible for the free/reduced price lunch, with special exemptions for the children of service personnel and veterans, the homeless, or those currently or formerly in foster care.

Three years old may seem young to start worrying about achievement gaps, but Porter argued that it's when those gaps first appear. Porter said, "When people think about pre-K, they think about colors and shapes and counting. But it's a lot more than that. It's when a child's brain development is at its greatest." Access to pre-K introduces kids to early problem solving, increases socialization, and teaches them how a classroom works, all at a pivotal time in their growth.

The district first piloted the Pre-K3 program in South and East Austin in 2014, starting with 42 3-year-olds at Oak Springs and Zavala elementaries. After one year, the district was confident enough in the results to undertake an immediate expansion, adding an extra 15 classrooms at 13 campuses. This latest growth will nearly double the total number of classrooms to 32 at 26 campuses, with a total capacity of over 1,000 kids.

Jame Mathias (Photo by John Anderson)

Porter said the site selection process was pretty simple: locate them on campuses with existing pre-K facilities (after all, if there's a large number of 4-year-olds needing pre-K, odds are there are 3-year-olds needing the same). Plus, if the purpose of pre-K is to get kids ready for kindergarten and then elementary, locating those facilities on existing campuses makes sense. That way, when students are ready to move from pre-K to kindergarten, Porter said, "They can move from one to the other just by moving down the hall."

AISD has been looking to expand pre-K for years. But while the state will cover operating costs, such as teacher and teaching assistant salaries, it won't assist with the roughly $15,000 per classroom expense of converting an existing space into a pre-K classroom. So the district has managed to secure funding from a group of nonprofits, including the Buena Vista Foundation and United Way for Greater Austin, to cover those start-up costs. Porter said it's always tough to get multi-year commitments from donors, "but talking to them about a one-time investment is an easy sell."

The expansion is a boon for AISD residents represented by Board Trustee Jayme Mathias. Not only do they have a successful pilot school – Zavala – in their district, but the biggest expansion, with six of the 13 new campuses. Mathias said he was "happy to be ground zero" for both the initial proof of concept and the planned expansion. He added, "What is so exciting for me is that we're really providing opportunities to children that they wouldn't have. ... For us as a district to be providing an environment for them to have interaction with their peers and educators, this is absolutely precious."

With only the numbers for the 2014 two-campus pilot project available, Porter said it's far too early to say how profoundly the program will impact that 50% kindergarten-ready statistic. But she's already seeing some impact: Not only are the current Pre-K4 students who went to Pre-K3 more accustomed to being in a school environment, but staff are also detecting and intervening on developmental issues at a younger age. For example, she said, "There are kids who exited from speech services because we caught them early enough."

Beyond the educational benefits, the pre-K program also helps the district with its increasing enrollment and facility utilization problems. AISD elementary campuses, especially in the urban core, and South and East Austin, are seeing a decline in student numbers, leading to empty rooms. Moving Pre-K3 programs into those empty classrooms, as Mathias noted, "kills two birds with one stone."

For Porter, getting more use out of underutilized campuses is "a win/win," yet it's not what's driving the site selection. She said, "Really what's driving it is where there's a need and a number of kids." However, she is hoping for another unintended consequence. While pre-K populations in the urban core are dwindling, AISD is also losing kids to aggressive recruitment from charter groups. So bringing them into an AISD Pre-K3 classroom can be an effective way to educate parents on what AISD has to offer. Calling the program "a strategy to connect with parents earlier," Porter said. "Having two successful years in pre-K with their kids, parents become more invested in the community."

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Austin Independent School District, pre-K, kindergarten, Buena Vista Foundation, United Way for Greater Austin

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