Save the Children: The Case for Early Childhood Education

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Twain Dual Language Students walk off stage after saying the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages before the SAISD 2018 State of the District.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Mark Twain Dual Language Academy students walk off stage after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages before the SAISD 2018 State of the District address.

The single biggest step the people and leaders of San Antonio can take to make the coming years more equitable and prosperous for everyone is to expand early childhood education and social services in the city and county.

Bringing a newfound focus to the critically important development of children from birth to age 5, when brains develop most rapidly, or fail to develop, comes with a price tag. That so-called “cost” is actually human capital investment. The real “cost” is what taxpayers pay to be the state with the highest prison population in the country, that consistently ranks in the bottom fifth of spending on public schools, and that suffers some of the poorest education outcomes.

As San Antonio celebrates its Tricentennial, I find myself most interested in the focus on the kind of city we want to become rather than the city we are. It’s hardly news that San Antonio’s historic formation along racially and economically segregated lines has left this 300-year-old city with epic 21st-century challenges.

Many of us who love living here, who are educated, and who can afford to take advantage of San Antonio’s many amenities and attractions realize there are hundreds of thousands of others in the city whose lives are night-and-day different than our own. That is why we are eager – no, impatient – to see the pace of change accelerate.

City and county leaders brought the San Antonio River back to life with little outside help, and that two-decade-long undertaking has redefined the city. Now we should invest in the city’s most vulnerable children so that it no longer matters where you live along or near that river. Opportunity should be found along its entire length.

Do we want to be a city and county known for its smart-jobs economy, great lifestyle, unique history and culture, and unlimited opportunity? The only path forward is to give inner-city, predominantly minority children equal access to a good public education and the family social services needed to address poverty and its many manifestations.

Continue on our current path of underfunding public education and educating our children according to the zip code of their birth and we will remain a city with one in five of families living below the federal poverty threshold, a city with its own perpetually overcrowded jail.

Bexar County’s population will soon surpass 2 million people, yet less than half of the 4-year-olds here and throughout Texas are enrolled in all-day preschool programs, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The State limits its funding to half-day programs, even though research demonstrates the inadequacy of such an approach.

San Antonio is nationally recognized for its City-managed Pre-K 4 SA program, started under then-Mayor Julián Castro, but the program only enrolls 2,000 students at its four centers, although more are reached through its outreach programs with area public school districts.

Pre-K 4 SA students hop on board the school bus as the driver extends his hand. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A driver lends a helping hand as Pre-K 4 SA students board the school bus.

“We need to create universal full-day care for 25,000 children in our county,” said Sarah Baray, the Pre-K 4 SA’s chief executive officer, when I asked her last week what it would take to give every 4-year-old in Bexar County, regardless of family income, access to all-day preschool.

Too many of those 25,000 children are in working-class families and cannot afford quality preschool, yet they are not poor enough to qualify for free Pre-K 4 SA or Head Start, available in the San Antonio and Edgewood Independent School Districts.

All of this will come into focus when the Rivard Report and more than 40 local education nonprofits stage the city’s third annual Education Forum Tuesday, March 6, at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center. (Click here for tickets or more information.)

The program will bring together an array of early childhood education experts. Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, will deliver the keynote speech.

Kate Rogers, executive vice president of the recently established Holdsworth Center, and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, executive director of P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, will speak on their work before the panel discussion.

I will moderate a panel discussion with Baray; Cynthia Osborne, the director of the Child and Family Research Partnership and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin; Alejandra Barraza, the principal at SAISD’s Carroll Early Childhood Education Center located on the city’s Eastside; and Kelsey Clark, a principle at the Boston Consulting Group and expert on early childhood education.

Charles Butt, the longtime Chairman and CEO of H-E-B and the largest individual philanthropist to public education in Texas, will receive the Education Champion Award at the event.

Last week, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez delivered his annual State of the District address at the Pearl Stable before a full house of community leaders, educators, and engaged citizens. Inner-city children have a one in 10 chance of graduating from college, while nearly eight of 10 young people in the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods graduate from college.

San Antonio is at a crossroads as we celebrate our long history, good and bad. The opportunity we create now for children in this city will determine the future trajectory of the city.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez waits to be introduced at the SAISD 2018 State of the District at the Pearl Stable.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez waits to be introduced at the SAISD 2018 State of the District at the Pearl Stable.

10 thoughts on “Save the Children: The Case for Early Childhood Education

  1. Thank you Robert, for another thought-provoking article. Will Beth and Rick touch on this topic in one of their upcoming podcasts?

    Now that a somewhat broad-stroked moral argument has been made here, I look forward to March 6th for some budget numbers and projected results for the electorate to ponder.

  2. Kudos to everyone involved in this critical aspect of the education of our children. However, I am still a bit disappointed that the critical role of the parents must also be emphasized. The education of a child starts even BEFORE conception with good maternal nutrition and continues throughout pregnancy and into all of the child’ s life to ensure a healthy structural brain that can be taught more efficiently . Finally the parents can and must be involved in their child’s education from birth onward. Think colorful mobiles, singing to the six month old, reading colorful books with a lot of pretty pictures to the eighteen month old, etc.

    • Thank you Dr. Menchaca for your very relevant comments. This HAS to be a part of the discussion at the upcoming Education Forum.

  3. Dr. Menchacha’s comments make since, but I feel they are a bit void of reality. With the existence of a majority of dual income families along with many who have not experienced good parenting examples, just stating that these folks need to be involved in their child’s education from birth onward is not realistic and will not fix the problem. The following sentence from Bob’s article says it all, “Inner-city children have a one in 10 chance of graduating from college, while nearly eight of 10 young people in the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods graduate from college.” I believe providing more opportunity for the less privilege can change their chances for success. However, it is not addressing the root causes of the problem. The key words in the quoted sentence is “more prosperous neighborhoods.” That implies that parents who establish themselves in a stable (financially and emotionally) household prior to starting a family are the ones who will provide their children with the greatest chances for success. Educating the younger generation on the importance of establishing a “prosperous” family environment prior to starting a family may be more effective in addressing this problem.

    • Ken, Dr. Menchaca’s comments are definitely part of the overall solution along with your comment on the importance of the family environment. Both of your comments go hand in hand.

      However, I do believe stakeholders need to rephrase the “providing more opportunity for the less privilege.” Let’s education the “less privilege” on how to CREATE opportunity for themselves instead of waiting for someone to PROVIDE opportunity to them. I am not saying not to provide opportunity. Also, I definitely do not agree with repeating the horrible educational statistics to children because the message we are sending is that the deck is stacked against them and the expectation is they will not graduate from college. We need to encourage our children and inspire them to succeed in higher education or by learning a marketable skill/trade.

  4. Robert, Thank you for your continued support of early child education. It demonstrates a wonderful return on investment which has a positive impact on individuals and thus, the community in which they live. I surely hope the PreK4SA funding continues past 2020 and that city council will see the merits of this program.

  5. As a parent of twins whom were among the 1st class of Pre-K 4 SA, I’m a firm believer of this continued initiative. My girls are now in 3rd grade and have continued to excel in school. Thank you for bringing more awareness and support for early childhood education.

  6. When we examine solutions to almost every major social economic problem in our country, EDUCATION surfaces as the number one solution. I will attend the seminar on March 6 to hear what fellow citizens have to say. There is a urgent need in SA to address the fast differences by zip code. Of equal concern to me is the High School graduation rate by zip. No cost issue here. It’s free and receives too little attention on our radar screen.

  7. I loved your story on the need for Pre-K for all San Antonio kids, but I think it is important not to oversell it. Starting with Pre-K means starting AFTER the critical 0-3 developmental stages. Pre-K is absolutely needed, but if we ignore the 3-4 years prior to Pre-K, even Pre-K won’t succeed, then the public gets cynical about investing tax dollars in early childhood programs.

    There is a very legitimate argument in the Early Childhood public policy arena about how we fill that enormous gap. Do we work from back (school entry) front (pregnancy) or front (parenting classes) to back (school entry)? Two wonderful books by the journalist, Paul Tough, lay out the issue beautifully. One is Whatever it Takes. It is the story of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. The second is How Children Succeed. It is a compilation of his research into child development efforts from conception through the first year of college. (He followed with a third book Helping Children Succeed, that is almost a follow-on handbook on applying the principles in his previous books.)

    Whenever we get a new board member on the Voices for Children board, I recommend How Children Succeed. When Diego Bernal was in city council and was desperately concerned about one of his neighborhoods, I gave him a copy of Whatever it Takes. In both of these, Tough emphasizes the importance of “starting at the beginning.” Then the question becomes, Where is the beginning?

    Parenting classes for pregnant moms and dads is always the focus, but even with intensive and determined efforts, only a small fraction of pregnant parents enroll and those are usually the least at-risk in any population. The only place we can capture “everyone” is the labor and delivery rooms. There, we can take a peek into the lives of these moms for from 1-24 hours. In that time, it is easy for a hospital social worker to give a 10 minute assessment of risk factors to determine the most at-risk parents and newborns. When we get those scores, we know what to do.

    The undisputed champion of 0-3 interventions is Home Visiting. There is a massive amount of research on Home Visiting and in every case, it was successful. Sadly, the state of Texas has piloted more of those research projects than we can imagine. We know how to do them. We know they work. Yet we still fund only a fraction of the need. That is because home visitation is expensive.

    Successful home visitation requires a highly trained nurse or social worker. Their case loads have to be light, because they need to visit each mom once or twice a week for 2-3 years, depending on the nature of that family’s needs. In low need families, well trained volunteers have proven successful. The home visitors are key, because they can nearly guarantee the successful completion of Erikson’s first two stages of development.

    Even with home visitors, a significant number of high need families will decline the service. Sometimes, it is simple pride getting in the way, more often, those families don’t want outside eyes seeing what is going on in the household (gang activity, criminal activity, drug use, child abuse, domestic abuse, etc.). This is where the failing foster system kicks in to destroy children. Perhaps a better alternative would be what affluent eastern families have been doing for hundreds of years – boarding schools. What if we sent kids to “urban residential academies,” instead of foster care? Boarding schools have worked for the most affluent, why not try them with the least affluent?

    In order for Pre-K to succeed, kids have to come to school “whole.” If we keep putting broken kids in to the system, we will keep getting broken adolescents on the other end. We have to take care of the “beginning” in order for all of the steps that follow to succeed. It’s much like Pre-K. We know it works. We know how to do it. We just don’t fund it. Instead, we know in advance how many prison beds we will need 18 years later.

  8. The report is very interesting but again tries to box in certain areas of affluence and its results for achievement regarding the inner city verses the suburbs. This no longer applies in San Antonio nor the new developments incentives our city has with investors for downtown/inner cities. The cost of living downtown has made it cost effective for many to move out north and to better districts with no pre-k programs as offered in the inner city.
    Taxes and incentives for better schools, safer neighborhoods are factors to move. My children economically could not remain in the “hood” due to higher taxes and mortgage for such inner city redevelopment, it’s less costly in Stone Oak! The inner city school districts need to consolidate, no need for such costly waste for smaller districts. Population is growing but the demographics are smaller families, childless couples, older couples who can afford the $400k townhomes newly built. That means more taxes but fewer students. Many current affluent families in the inner city pay for private education but get no tax break.
    The program needs to be filtered out to all working classes and not one specific area, let’s be fair for the tax payer and their children.

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