At Wichita Falls Independent School District in Texas, we believe every student deserves to begin their academic career at the same starting line. It’s an issue of fairness and equity, certainly, but it’s also a practical matter. When students fall behind in the earliest years of their education, around ages 5–7, it becomes much more difficult to bring them to grade-level reading as they grow. Simply put, the biggest bang for our buck in developing strong students across grade levels comes from starting early and making sure they have a solid foundation.
The students who need the most help, however, often face a slew of other challenges in their lives, from unstable home environments to poverty and hunger and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We’ve found that committing to focus on school readiness, partnering with community organizations, and looking to technology for an assist when needed, can go a long way toward helping provide students with the right tools to succeed.
Find your focus
At the heart of our student readiness success is focus. It’s that simple. We decided to make early learning a priority and the rest followed from that.
In practice, that means we hired a director of early learning, Dr. Travis Armstrong. He concentrates exclusively on students who are not yet in school through those in kindergarten. We have an early learning specialist and a curriculum specialist who are both working in that area coaching teachers. We also have three dedicated Head Start campuses, a pre-K campus, and Head Start or pre-K programs running at 13 other campuses.
As part of our Parents as Teachers program, we have a director and six full-time teachers who go into kids’ homes once a week beginning at about age two. They help parents learn to become their child’s first teacher so they are in a better position to prepare them for school. This work is possible in part through a grant from the Texas Home Visiting Program that we received from our partnership with the North Texas Area United Way that focuses on children who are not already enrolled in a Head Start or pre-K program.
This leaves us with approximately 100 learners who aren’t receiving quality educational opportunities, whether that’s because of a lack of transportation, childcare arrangements, or some other reason. For those children, we offer a blended learning solution called Waterford UPSTART, which provides an online kindergarten readiness curriculum.
Families who can’t afford it are provided a free laptop and Internet connectivity. Children spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week working on kindergarten readiness. Dr. Armstrong says that, in all of his years in education, this is the first time he hasn’t had to turn any families away from school-readiness opportunities due to a lack of resources. Waterford UPSTART has really helped us to close that gap.