Mike Villarreal presents his findings to the Early Childhood Education Municipal Development Corporation board.
Mike Villarreal, director of UTSA's Urban Education Institute, presents his findings to the board that governs the city-funded Pre-K 4 SA. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The first group of students who attended Pre-K 4 SA in its first year has taken third-grade STAAR exams, and results showed the students were more likely to perform better on state exams and attend class than those who did not attend public pre-K.

A new study from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute also showed the former Pre-K 4 SA students were less likely to be identified as needing special-education services. The study also suggests the first group of Pre-K 4 SA students “fared slightly better” than children who enrolled in public pre-K.

Pre-K 4 SA is the City of San Antonio’s taxpayer-funded, full-day pre-kindergarten program. It serves 2,000 4-year-old students each year and started with a class of 750 students in 2013.

In 2020, voters will likely be asked to reapprove the 1/8 of a cent sales tax appropriation to fund the pre-K program. In recent months, City Council members have asked for results from the first class of Pre-K 4 SA students, anticipating the future election issue.

The research presented Monday is the first study of the program’s impact in relation to other public pre-K programs or no public pre-K.

Mike Villarreal, the director of the UTSA institute, presented his findings to Pre-K 4 SA’s board at a meeting Monday morning. He explained his process to board members, telling them that he compared almost 400 original Pre-K 4 SA students to other students with similar demographics enrolled in the same third-grade classes and schools.

The comparison groups included both students who participated in other public pre-K programs and those who didn’t participate in public pre-K. Students who didn’t enroll in public pre-K could have gone to a private or parochial preschool or may not have participated in pre-K at all. Altogether, Villarreal looked at STAAR results, attendance rates, and special-education identifications of roughly 10,000 students.

Mike Villarreal, director of the UTSA Urban Education Institute Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When examining STAAR math scores, Villarreal found that compared to students who didn’t participate in public pre-K, Pre-K 4 SA increased the share of students who met or exceeded the state average by 15.4 percentage points. In comparison to students who attended other public pre-K programs, Pre-K 4 SA increased the share of students who met or exceeded the state average by 5.6 percentage points.

Reading scores also showed a net gain in Pre-K 4 SA students who met or exceeded the state average. In comparison to those who did not participate in public pre-K, Pre-K 4 SA increased the share of students who met or exceeded the state average by 11.6 percentage points. Compared to students who attended public pre-K programs, Pre-K 4 SA increased the share of students who met or exceeded the state average by 3.4 percent. While the 3.4 number was not statistically significant, Villarreal said, it suggested a pattern.

Examining absenteeism, Villarreal looked at attendance rates for students from kindergarten through third grade and found that on average, Pre-K 4 SA students attended an average of 33.3 more days than their peers who didn’t attend public pre-K. The gulf shrinks when compared to other students who attended public pre-K. Pre-K 4 SA students attended 5.5 more days than students in this group.

“Every day of instruction matters,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said. “This is especially true in the early years, as brain research tells us those years are the most critical for long-term success.”

PreK4SA Director Sarah Baray
Pre-K 4 SA Director Sarah Baray Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Board members said they were particularly impressed with how much additional money increased attendance yielded for school districts. In Texas, where funding is based on average daily attendance, the more students in seats each day means more money. Local schools received approximately $23.2 million more in funding because of increased attendance, both by Pre-K 4 SA students and other students who started enrolling in public pre-K programs after Pre-K 4 SA started.

Finally, Villarreal looked at the impact of Pre-K 4 SA on other public pre-K programs. In 2012, voters passed a measure that funded the public pre-kindergarten program. The first group of students entered the schools in the 2013-14 school year, and Villarreal found that after 2014, Bexar County’s enrollment in other public pre-K programs spiked by about 9 percent.

Villarreal hypothesized that there may have been an increase in enrollment because money spent on the Pre-K 4 SA campaign raised awareness about early education.

Baray and other board members emphasized that Pre-K 4 SA’s mission is not just to improve outcomes for the 2,000 students who attend one of the program’s four centers each year, but also to improve outcomes for Bexar County as a whole and increase the number of students enrolling in high-quality public pre-K programs.

The full study will not be released for 30 days, a Pre-K 4 SA spokeswoman said. Pre-K 4 SA and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which invested $2 million in UTSA’s Urban Education Institute, funded the study.

Villarreal plans to continue following cohorts of Pre-K 4 SA students in the coming years.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.