As state cuts in education funding begin to ripple throughout the public school system, educators are concerned that the youngest and most vulnerable students could be among those most affected.
The cuts include $1.4 billion in discretionary grants that fund full-day pre-kindergarten programs for the children of low-income, homeless, foster and military families.
If the programs are scaled back further, educators say, nearly 100,000 full-day preschoolers in Texas could fall behind their peers as early as kindergarten, and their parents could face challenges in finding and affording substitute care for their children.
"It's providing that awareness, that appreciation of books, basic number sense," said Patricia Rangel, the Fort Worth district's director of early childhood education. "Anytime they do not attend pre-K, they're already behind by the time they get to kindergarten."
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About 4,400 children in the Fort Worth district attend full-day pre-kindergarten. They are safe for now because trustees and administrators refused to cut the program even though $4.2 million in grants is no longer available.
"That's why we're very appreciative that the board is committed to pre-K," Rangel said. "They kept everything. It's very unusual. Other districts did cut quite a bit."
Houston also kept its full-day program intact at the expense of other programs. Dallas pulled back from a possible expansion of its full-day program and has explored cutting it back instead.
Crowley, Birdville, Arlington, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Keller have half-day pre-K programs paid for by the state's public schools fund, as do many other North Texas districts.
Keller's half-day pre-kindergarten program serves only 4-year-olds on a single campus, the Keller Early Learning Center. One budget proposal would have eliminated three teacher's aide positions there, but they were reinstated in July.
Birdville lost one of 27 pre-K aide positions through budget cuts, and that job was in the program for 3-year-olds. The loss of a federal grant caused the district to transfer one pre-K teacher from a community-based site to a campus teaching job.
Full-day programs like Fort Worth's are crucial for non-English speakers, Rangel said.
"It gives them more opportunities to build experiential background," Rangel said. "Our children lack vocabulary; we're trying to develop that oral language. For at-risk children, we want to provide them opportunities for dialogue."
If full-day programs are reduced to half-days, many low-income parents could not keep their children enrolled.
"Our parents often would be unable to leave their children for just half a day and then pick them up," Rangel said. "There are a lot of other issues: Could they afford to pick them up? Could they afford the cost of day care for half a day?"
Pre-kindergarten administrators in half-day districts say they are noticing a trend of hardship among parents.
"We've seen an increase in the number of families that are depending on that free lunch," said Connie Spence, principal at the Arlington school district's all-pre-K Kooken Education Center. "They're asking about transportation, too, and some will ask, 'Do we have a shoe closet?' or 'Do we have a clothing closet?'"
"But," Kooken teacher Jeanne Pappion added, "they understand the value of an early education, and they want to work it out and get their kids here."
Kooken itself was a candidate for closure this year when Arlington's budget shortfall was initially estimated at $15.3 million.
Arlington did eliminate the 18 pre-kindergarten aide positions in programs based in child-care centers, district spokeswoman Amy Casas said, but none in the programs at schools. Four of the 18 pre-K locations were shut down because of low enrollment.
The staff cuts will be felt most keenly behind the scenes, Spence said, in the loss of support staff for administrators and teachers.
'The way of the future'
The Arlington district has half-day pre-K for 4-year-olds. It is open to 3-year-olds if space is available. The programs have 3,858 students. Kooken had a waiting list of 45 students Thursday.
Myrah Gomez, 3, wore her Hello Kitty backpack to registration this week at Kooken. She said she looks forward to coloring in class.
"She just really wants to go to school," said her mother, Tiffany Corrales.
Michelle Rehm found it "bittersweet" to register the youngest of her three children for pre-kindergarten. As a stay-at-home mom, Rehm said she expects no problems dropping off and picking up her 3-year-old after half-day classes.
Children learn the most between ages 1 and 5, said Carole Hagler, state and federal programs director with the Arlington district. "By the time many get out of pre-K, they're already doing some reading."
Half-day "wraparound" programs at day-care centers let kids stay in the same location all day.
"This is the way of the future. This solves a lot of problems," Hagler said of the community-based integrated approach to pre-kindergarten. "We provide teachers and the curriculum materials that remain there for the center's own use."
Staff writers Jessamy Brown and Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657