A Teacher Weighs the Pros and Cons of Pre-K-4-SA

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Melinda Martin

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.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

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.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

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.

Double Dipping?

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.

Program Governance

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?

Undecided

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.)




There are 17 comments

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  1. Ken Mitts

    How many Pre-K students are left behind with this program or stated another way, how many Pre-K students reside in San Antonio who are not eligible for state funded Pre-K? From the Pre-K SA Summary Fact Sheet:
    “There are approximately 5,700 four-year-old children living in San Antonio who are eligible for State funded Pre-K but currently are not enrolled in a full day Pre-K program. An estimated 2,300 eligible four-year-old children currently are not enrolled in any Pre-K program while 3,400 are enrolled in half-day programs in the City of San Antonio.”

    Assuming a student’s level of parental involvement stays the same throughout his/her Pre-K through 12 school years, will one year of Pre-K make a significant differnce in the student’s future success with his/her education?

  2. Sue Gilliam Trautner via Facebook

    Good points made from someone who has the perspective that most voters do not. Thanks for this thoughtful piece!

  3. Melinda Martin

    Ken,
    Regarding numbers, SAISD numbers do not jump significantly from PreK to Kinder, but San Antonio has 15 districts, and I cannot attest to the enrollment of the others. It is generally assumed that students not qualifying for PreK come from homes that are able to give sufficient basic skills for school-readiness (whether at home from educated parents, or at a private preschool/daycare).
    The eligibility requirements for (state funded) PreK address specific key indicators affecting student success. For example, it has been shown that students coming from homes where no English is spoken have a very difficult transition once they hit Kindergarten or 1st grade. This is because the language acquisition window closes at age 5, and while learning a new language is possible, it is much more difficult. Other indicators such as homelessness, economically disadvantaged, and foster care each pose specific emotional and/or academic challenges that prevent the likelihood of a student acquiring basic skills leading to school success. These challenges do not stop at PreK, but if addressed, make success much more likely. So, yes – 1 year of PreK can make a very large difference – though quality and quantity can be a factor!
    You are right to address the parental involvement issue (and other societal factors), but as teachers, we have no control over what goes on at home. Would students learn better if they knew they had regular meals , clean clothes, and a loving family? Of course! We teach the students that come to our classrooms, and guide them to success the best we can. Regardless of the external issues, we teachers, are still held accountable for student outcomes. It is disconcerting that we, as a society, treat education as if it were the same for everyone. Each student walking through our doors is an individual, but our education system (and accountability system) is one-size-fits-all.

  4. Jim

    Melinda, Thanks for your thoughts. I am currently trying to go through the details available on the proposed program and you raise a number of the issues that also concern me. I am not in education but I have a lot of experience in development, implementation and evaluation of publicly funded development programs. I would like your opinion on a few details that are outside my realm: (i) Teacher/student ratios – the proposal is 1 teacher and 1 aide per 20 students. Friends who are parents tell me that this is too many 3 – 5 year old (i.e., need lower teacher/student ratio) for the type of “high quality, individual attention” required to deliver on program objectives; (ii) proposed salaries – I understand that the point is to attract qualified people, but the teacher and admin staff salaries appear to be quite high. A relative of mine with a Masters, many years in a local school district, and who has been a vice-principal does not earn what the pre-k teachers would and admin staff positions are twice or more that of teachers; (iii) per student cost in the Model Pre-K Centers – if one includes all the appropriate, associated costs (admin overheads, facilities, maintenance) along with the direct costs (teacher salaries, supplies and materials, etc etc) the cost per student appears to be around $14,000/yr. What are your thoughts on that? Is this cost justified if to obtain the objectives “high quality” is essential or, as the recent panelist on Pre-K4SA from Texas A&M put it “if you are going to do this and be effective, you have to go large”.; (iv) institutional sustainability – you note that the parallel bureaucracy that this would establish may be questionable. Could this be delivered in a more sustainable and cost-effective fashion through the school districts themselves? The grants for the 1,700 students/yr to school districts are less than 40% of what the cost is in the Model Pre-K Centers. In closing, I very much agree with you that the issues of governance, transparency and accountability would be absolutely critical to get right…and at present it is not at all clear how that will work. In public programs of this nature, unless San Antonio is an outlier, the sums involved are inevitably going to attract a lot of political attention and pressure for patronage. Making sure that does not derail the program requires very smart and transparent governance.

    • Melinda Martin

      Jim,
      Thank you for your thoughts on this issue. The questions you ask are the types of questions we need to be asking in all areas of education – not just PreK.

      Student-teacher Ratio
      The proposed ratio is, in essence, 10/1 (counting the teacher aide). This is very functional depending on the type of curriculum, and most private pre-schools implement this ratio.

      Salaries
      Yes, the salaries proposed are higher than even most seasoned educators unless you are in administration. Private PreK program teachers generally make anywhere between $8.50-$12.00 per hour. Even high-quality private schools rarely pay as much as the public sector. The proposed salaries are significantly higher than public schools. The higher salaries and private governance of this program may allow the board to be very selective on their candidates, and that may be the plan. However, it seems a bit excessive to me, too.

      Per-student Cost
      In 2011-2012, the average spending per student in Texas was $8,908 (National Education Association), so the $14,000 price tag is somewhat questionable. However, it is more important to me *how* this money is spent. Something they haven’t addressed is the cost of “curriculum” – because they haven’t decided on one. There are very effective teaching methodologies (such as Montessori) that could help our students develop skills beyond “math and reading” without costing an arm and a leg. However, if they go with the same “Name Brand” curriculum books, we will end up with more of the same, just a higher price tag. Are they going to offer Arts integration and PE into these learning centers? Just some thoughts.

      Sustainability
      Are there other (possibly more effective) ways to implement PreK/school reform? Yes, but not as directly or easily. There are MANY things that need to change about public education. However, the system is a giant bureaucratic machine, and change is very difficult to institute. I think this approach is a way to side-step some of the bureaucracy and directly impact families in San Antonio.

  5. Bob Bevard

    Can ANYONE do arithmetic in this town? $7.81 x @ 400,000 households in San Antonio = $3.124 million, not $31 or $32 million. Granted, they aren’t all median income, but the point is the mid-point is expected to pay $7.81? Who’s going to pay the other $28 million?

    If you use the entire population of San Antonio @1.6 million x $7.81 = $12.5 million.

    The arithmetic as claimed in the ads is off by a factor of ten.

    The facts (recent Fed’l Gov’t report on it’s OWN program-Head Start) continue to show that pre-K loses all advantage by third grade and has some significant disadvantages associated with it, beyond the extraordinary claimed costs of this program which does NOT have the details worked out, yet we are told to believe that it will be exceptional and the results will be outstanding.

    I read yesterday in an OpEd that the City doesn’t even know the names or addresses of the targeted, unserved youngsters, that the City simply knows they exist because of the latest census. How on Earth is this supposed to work? The parents don’t avail themselves of all the possible services today, but they will jump through more difficult and rigorous hoops to take advantage of this program? Who’s dreaming?

    • Melinda Martin

      Bob,
      It is my understanding that this is a sales tax increase, therefore the tax burden is shared not only by individual households, but by businesses and tourism.

      As for Head Start, I personally feel that it is not rigorous enough and that we can do so much more for our students. I currently work at the other end of the school-age spectrum, and witness daily the ramifications of what happens to students who are “left behind” – academically, socially and emotionally.

      Something must be done, and while this is not the be-all answer to our educational problems, the discussion must start somewhere.

  6. Judy

    I am a retired educator with 16 years experience teaching at the elementary level and 12 years as an administrator. More importantly, on a personal level, I have five pre-school aged grandchildren. I am passionate about providing children with a high-quality education, so I applaud Mayor Castro for seeking to improve educational opportunities for our city’s neediest children. That said, I’m not convinced that the focus is where it needs to be.

    As noted, there are many questions about implementation, accountability, and duplication of services. Most Pre-K programs offered by our local school districts are half-day, so the question is whether or not it is beneficial to offer a full-day program (for children who otherwise would only get a half-day program). The problem with changing it to full-day is that most young children cannot go a full-day without a nap. You also must add in lunch period. So, while children may benefit from being in a structured environment with an emphasis on learning, there is not as much bang-for-your-buck (instuctionally) by going full-day.

    As I interact with my young grandchildren, I am amazed by how much they learn from pure exposure through music and play. Young children are sponges. By age three, they are capable of learning basic literacy skills and numeracy. Little ones are capable of learning to recognize letters and know their sounds. Many can count to at least twenty and understand simple addition and subtraction as well as the value of single-digit numbers. Their vocabulary grows exponentially in these early years. In my opinion, waiting to start school till age four is too late for children who come from disadvantaged homes. I think that it would be much more beneficial to provide quality early learning for three-year-olds than to duplicate the existing services of our public schools.

    If this referendum addressed the need for quality instruction for three-years-olds, I would support it 100%. I could even support it if the funds were to go to our public schools to fund innovative full-day programs that lowered the teacher/student ratio, funded research-based staff development, and required parent involvement to extend learning beyond the school yard.

    I’m not against raising local taxes for education, especially in light of the horrendous funding cuts that our school districts have endured. We do not need to reinvent Pre-K. Let’s use those dollars in ways that improve what we have and extend learning opportunities for three-year-olds.

  7. Melinda Martin

    Judy,
    You are absolutely right! I mentioned that we really underestimate what our kids are capable of (especially at the 3-4 year old level). As you said, “they are sponges”. If we could also focus on problem-solving, critical thinking and developing skills for independent learning, we could be helping out teachers in the upper-grades.

    Music and arts integration are a whole other soap-box, and I could go on for hours! Thank you for your input!

  8. Texas Parents

    “If we could also focus on problem-solving, critical thinking and developing skills for independent learning, we could be helping out teachers in the upper-grades.”

    Problem-solving and critical thinking skills are de-emphasized at our kid’s elementary school due to the administration’s perverse fixation on test scores. We are concerned about the quality of pre-k programs that currently exist in our neighborhood public schools. Frequently, we hear parents complain that there is too much testing (benchmarking) and unreasonable expectations for young children. The purpose of pre-k should never be “helping out teachers in the upper-grades.” Quality, discovery-based, enriching and child-centered pre-k programs should be designed and implemented by experienced TEACHERS. These are the experts who work with our children everyday and understand what works best.

    • Melinda Martin

      Texas Parents,

      “The purpose of pre-k should never be “helping out teachers in the upper-grades.” I agree that this should not be the purpose of pre-K, and I should have expanded my comment. Developing critical thinking, problem-solving and independent learning skills are life-skills we need as individuals throughout life, and can be developed early. These are also the skills necessary to succeed in the changing classroom environment. A rigorous Pre-K program can foster the skills in a way that also develops a deep love of learning. Students in the upper-grades who have not developed these skills are going to have a very difficult time as expectations are being raised in schools.

      “Quality, discovery-based, enriching and child-centered pre-k programs” are exactly the kind of programs we need. As this PreK initiative is developing, I seriously question the lack of clarity on curricular approach.

      Thank you so much for chiming in!

  9. gary whitford

    If the State of Texas refuses to fulfill its responsibility to adequately fund education, and local school districts cannot find the resources to fully meet our educational needs, it is incumbent upon the community – in a global competition for business development – to provide its own resources. Brainpower as a municipal activity, reaching into neighborhoods where generation after generation remains “disadvantaged,” is a valid and necessary means to building a viable, excellent city of the future. Mayor Castro has my vote, and I hope the Texas legislature and school districts get the message.

    • Melinda Martin

      Gary,
      You are correct that it is up to the local community to step up to the plate. I applaud Mayor Castro in his efforts, but would like more information about the program before taxpayers write the check.

      School districts are run by locally elected boards, and as citizens we need to start stepping up to the plate by being more involved and informed (at the local and state level).

      Thank you for your input, and your support for education!


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