I have worked as a public educator for nine years – six serving the San Antonio area. Working inside the system has given me insight that no taxpayer, politician or parent can get from the outside. Despite that experience, I am still struggling with whether or not I will support Mayor Julián Castro’s Brainpower Initiative come Nov. 6. For me, picking a president is easier work. Let me share some of the pros and cons of the ballot initiative.
Reaching our Most Disadvantaged Students
Mayor Castro ‘s Brainpower Initiative “Pre-K-4-SA” emphasizes the importance of early education, and there is significant evidence to support the idea that preschool is a determining factor in both school and social success. Preschool (pre-kindergarten/pre-k) is not just about academics, it’s also about language and life skills. The earlier we reach our kids, the more prepared they will be. It’s that simple. The targeted students of this initiative are mostly bilingual, and come from homes with limited resources. The three to five-year-old age is the prime window for language acquisition, and this program would reduce the need for special services later in education.
Over the course of eight years, the initiative anticipates serving 22,000 San Antonio students. “Pre-K-4-SA” would provide some of our most disadvantaged students the opportunity to acquire the social and academic skills necessary to succeed in public education and in life. Mayor Castro’s plan does not yet have a clear curriculum, but his proposal marks a significant attitude shift among other San Antonio leaders in actively addressing the educational needs of our community.
Improving Current Programs
Some of the 0.125 cent tax increase would provide competitive grants to current public pre-k programs for improvements. The goals of the proposed grants are to lengthen instructional time, decrease the student-teacher ratio by hiring teacher-aides and otherwise improve the quality of instruction. Assuming teachers and administrators are willing to take the personal time to write a grant (because it cannot happen during the school day), these grants could greatly impact the success rates of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) schools. If we invest money into quality and quantity of early education, we are more likely to see lower dropout rates, higher test scores and a decrease in student need for special services.
The Head Start program and other subsidized preschool options follow curriculum that prepares children for the current classroom environment, but education is changing. New tests and standards at the state and national level are elevating the cognitive expectations of students and changing the classroom environment. As public educators, we endure endless hours of professional development in preparation for these heightened expectations. Teachers have been bombarded with catch-phrases such as: differentiated instruction, student-centered/hands-on learning, research-based practices and “whole-child approach” to learning.
At the same time, these teachers are often given a scripted curriculum and a specific timeline – with little room for re-teaching, in-depth discussions, student exploration of a subject or teacher-initiated enrichment. With classrooms bursting at the seams and limited resources, it is often impossible to give students the individualized attention they deserve – especially those who are already behind. In addition, most of our current teachers were raised in the worksheet-based, teacher-in-the-front type of classroom, and have not experienced the reality of a student-centered environment. Furthermore, students cannot go from being spoon-fed information to independent thinkers and self-managers overnight.
Excellent pre-k education is where we can develop these skills and make the most impact for the least cost. The Pre-K-4-SA initiative also incorporates teacher and administrator training so that we are bringing innovative practices into the classroom.
Future Impact on Education
If implemented well, the success of this initiative could help foster support for full-day pre-k for all Texan students. We, as a society, drastically underestimate what our three and four-year-olds are capable of and the life skills acquired at this age. Missing this window of learning can have life-altering consequences. At this time, even kindergarten is not state-mandated, so some students enter first grade with little-to-no academic skills, limited English proficiency and limited social skills. These students are expected to perform at the same level as students that received a preschool education, or the teacher is expected to bridge the gap. This could mean that the teacher must cram three years of learning and experience into one year.
Teachers at the elementary level are tasked with addressing the curriculum demands of multiple subjects (each with a separate curriculum), individual assessments, state testing, in addition to hours of paperwork, phone calls and professional development. They are responsible for the entire educational development of each student in their class (up to 30 individuals) and reprimanded if the students are not successful. When students come in with “deficiencies” in their academic/language/social development that have not been identified, the entry process can take as much as half a school year to receive external help – putting those students even further behind.
Is “Pre-K-4-SA” the Answer?
Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is most definitely true in the field of education. If we are looking to produce a city or country full of critical thinkers, we need to try something radically different or we will experience more of the same. However, the positive ramifications of the Pre-K-4-SA initiative are not enough to secure my vote as an educator and taxpayer.
As a taxpayer, the largest concern I have regarding this initiative is the fact that pre-K services are already available through Head Start San Antonio to students meeting the outlined criteria in the Mayor’s plan. There are additional opportunities for students of lower-income families for subsidized daycare (and preschool) offered through Texas Workforce Commission. The rating system and certification for providers of this service (Texas Rising Star) requires an educational component to achieve the top two ratings, essentially amounting to “preschool” services.
While I am not satisfied with the level of educational rigor of either of these programs, the fact that they exist begs the question: is it legal to provide the same service for which we are already paying taxes? We need to question why the students referenced in the Mayor’s plan are not receiving services. Is it lack of awareness about available programs, a personal choice not to participate or lack of space in the local school district? School districts have the opportunity to offer (and receive funds) for pre-k if there are more than 15 identified students, as per Texas Education Agency (TEA). If there are waiting-lists, should we not be approaching our local school boards to change or add services?
Providing a pre-k and kindergarten education is not mandated. Regardless of new programming, we will still have inequities among students entering school. As a city, state and country we must address this before we will see significant change.
The governance of the Mayor’s pre-k centers would be a corporation created by the City Council directed by a council-appointed board. Is this board accountable to TEA? Are we, in essence, creating a series of charter schools without the charter or state accountability? At this point, the curricular focus is so vague – with a brief mention of a focus on math and literacy – that it is difficult to stand behind as an educator. How exactly is this program innovative and different; and exactly how will the targeted objectives be measured, if not through TEA?
Accountability standards are the primary way we assess school success and teacher effectiveness as a society. Poor scores on high-stakes testing equals bad schools or bad teacher – regardless of whether or not that is reality. If a corporate board and a “third party” are responsible for accountability, are we creating a publicly funded private school?
With four weeks to decide, I will be watching this issue closely to get answers to my burning questions before making my final decision. As an educator, I know that preschool is the cornerstone of educational success, as it lays the foundation for all future learning. If taxpayers would pay as close attention to their schools and school boards as they are to this 0.125 ( or 1/8 th) cent tax increase, education in our city would be profoundly different.
Melinda Martin has served the San Antonio area as an educator for the past 6 years, and is currently a librarian at the San Antonio Independent School District. She was a Music teacher and has also worked in various Special Education environments in California and Nevada. Melinda studied Vocal Performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Music in 2000. She also holds a Master’s in Business Administration from University of Phoenix (2006) and a Master’s in Library Science from University of North Texas (2012). Aside from her passion for education, she enjoys reading, singing, and traveling with her family.
(Full disclosure: Melinda Martin is Rivard Report co-founder Monika Maeckle’s niece.)