That means that, if our community is to grow and thrive, it’s up to us to “grow our own” citizens who are capable of participating in our economy. If we’re to grow our own, we have to begin by preparing each student for kindergarten with a solid foundation for their entire academic careers. Here are three ways we make it happen.
1. Getting every student to the same starting line
I always say, “We’ve got to get them to the same starting line,” because if every one of our students is at that line by the time they start school, they tend to do pretty well.
Here’s what we find on day one: some students walk in ready to learn. These students have had rich early-childhood education opportunities. Others were not as fortunate, and they need more help. Some are just learning English for the first time. We work to catch them up as best we can, but once that gap opens it’s extremely difficult to close again, especially with the constraints of the 180-day school year in Texas.
In Wichita Falls, we’ve worked to keep that gap from opening by funding full-day PreK for qualifying students for about 20 years. Fortunately, the state legislature just allocated funds for early education, so now we have nearly enough funding from the state to cover all qualifying students, which includes English language learners, military dependents, homeless students, economically disadvantaged students, and migrants. For us, that’s about 800 students each year who are now funded through the state instead of district coffers.
2. Empowering parents to teach kids before they start school
Before our students even get to PreK, we offer them a state-recognized, blue-ribbon Parents as Teachers program that serves about 120 families each year. As part of this Texas Home Visiting grant-funded program, certified teachers go into the homes of students who are younger than four years old, usually for about 18 months. Weekly or bi-weekly, these teachers work with parents to get them aligned with social services if they need them, and to teach them why it’s important to read to their children as their child’s first teacher.
3. Partnering with mission-driven nonprofits
We also run our own Head Start program, which begins at three years old for qualifying students and serves about 500 children each year. If you walked into one of our Head Start classrooms, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from one of our standard PreK classes. They use the same curriculum, taught by teachers with the same certification, and have the same expectations of students.
We still have about 100-150 students who, for one reason or another, aren’t served by any of the above programs. There may be a transportation issue, parents may have work schedules that interfere or any number of other challenges.
For those students, we use the Waterford UPSTART program, funded with a grant through a local foundation. The nonprofit Waterford.org provides families a laptop and internet access at no cost so their children can access the organization’s personalized online early learning curriculum. This is a family-engagement activity in that someone calls and checks on the family weekly. We ask them to spend 20 minutes a day, five days a week during the entire year before kindergarten, working on early literacy skills, letter recognition, number recognition, color recognition, and more.
Two years ago, our director of early learning, Dr. Travis Armstrong, said, “It was so awesome to finish PreK Roundup because not a single student that wanted PreK services was turned away.” That was the first year that we were able to say that nearly all of our students either had some sort of early learning service or that their parents felt they had it under control themselves.
The collaboration with Waterford.org recently won Wichita Falls a place in Texas School Business magazine’s 13th Annual Bragging Rights, which recognizes 12 school districts that have implemented programs that are bettering the lives of Texas students, schools and communities.
In 2019, for the first time in the last six, we were above the state average in kindergarten readiness, and we plan to beat that number this year. Our district, which accounts for about 50% of our region, is also above our region’s average. We attribute this success to the fact that every 4-year-old in our district has an early education option should their parents so choose.
There’s always more work to be done, but with a focus on young children, parents, and community, we believe we’re on the right path. It’s also an honor to be a part of a dedicated group of educators like those in the AASA Early Learning Cohort working on new ways to improve access to early learning.