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‘Universal’ pre-K rolls out in Fort Worth in 2015

05/16/2014 10:09 PM

05/20/2014 3:20 PM

Slots in the Fort Worth school district pre-kindergarten program are filling up quickly this year, even with the addition of about 20 more classrooms by August.

As of May 15, the district had 1,379 open seats for the 2014-15 school year, out of more than 4,000 available, records show. Dozens more are being added for the 2015-16 school year, to accommodate about 7,044.

The $490 million bond approved by voters in November is paying for construction that will include the additional spots.

•  Interactive map: Fort Worth district pre-K locations and openings

“Our bond election was to implement what we call ‘universal’ pre-K,” said Michael Sorum, deputy superintendent of curriculum for the district. “That means we can serve all children.”

That’s good news to grandmother Rosa Ramirez of Fort Worth, who fretted that there would not be a slot for her 3-year-old grandson, Jayden.

“We have seen a lot of children who stay on the waiting list,” Ramirez said. “And when I had my daughters, we had to do great lines to get our children into pre-kindergarten, and there were just 60 or 70 spots, so the other children were left behind.”

Texas first required public school districts to offer pre-K under landmark education reforms in 1984. House Bill 72 required that high-risk 4-year-olds receive pre-kindergarten instruction because of findings that early childhood instruction is key to overall school success. Texas now has more than 226,000 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten.

In recent years, the Fort Worth district has sought to expand its program after seeing affirmation that pre-K works for students, Sorum said. The idea of universal pre-K was also encouraged by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in 2013.

“There’s lot of research that suggests that the earlier kids get started (in school), the better they do; it more than suggests— it’s proven,’’ Sorum said.

Parents like pre-K

Educators and parents know that pre-K is the foundation for learning basic skills such as the alphabet, colors and early literacy. Children also learn to adapt to structured schedules, which helps them develop social skills. Lessons learned in pre-K also are intended to prepare students for literacy in kindergarten, when children start learning how to read.

“Imagine those children who start school at 5 years old,’’ Ramirez said. “They lose out on one year. How are they going to start to read in kindergarten if they have lost out on a whole year?”

Ramirez has seen the benefits of the district’s pre-K program through her oldest grandson, Julian, who is 5 and finishing up his year in the program.

“If he hadn’t started pre-kindergarten, he would have been very behind,” she said. “When he started pre-kindergarten, he was behind. He cried a lot. But this year, he knows his colors, his letters. He knows a lot of things. He has advanced and developed very much.”

Under the state’s rules, districts are required to serve students who qualify for the program before it opens spots up to others. Students who qualify include English language learners, homeless children, children in special education or in the free and reduced lunch program. Children of military families also qualify.

School officials said the program is popular with parents.

Edith Avila of Fort Worth is an advocate of early childhood programs. She says her oldest child, Nicole Gutierrez, 4, is ready for pre-K now, after help from an early childhood development program. After she realized Nicole had speech difficulties early on, she

sought help from a speech therapist and enrolled the little girl in Early Childhood Matters, run by the Fort Worth Library.

“I want my children to be whatever they want in life and I want them to learn the importance of an education,’’ Avila said. “If I don’t show them the value, then no one else will.”

Avila expects to participate in the school district’s pre-kindergarten roundup, which is taking place now.

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