Fort Worth bond plan includes $24 million for universal pre-kindergarten

One in an occasional series about the Nov. 5 Fort Worth school bond election.

Four-year-old Lilith Alanis builds a house out of Lego blocks while her classmate gives Mr. Potato Head eyes so he can see.

Across the room, two little boys prepare a meal complete with imaginary chocolate milk. One boy cleans while the other pretends to eat — plastic corn on the cob and pears.

In Erin Horn’s pre-kindergarten class at Fort Worth’s Western Hills Primary School, there is a lesson behind every activity, and these playful moments are no different.

“Children need a way to learn,” Horn said, explaining that her students are learning even if they appear to be playing. “We are very ‘planful,’ if I can use that word.”

Lilith is improving her motor skills to better use the pencils required for schoolwork, Horn explains. The little boys are building their vocabularies and social skills.

Many educators believe that the education gap begins even before kindergarten. That theme coincides with a national push for the public education system to shift from K through 12 to pre-K through 12, and it echoes President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech.

That shift would begin in Fort Worth schools under a proposed $490 million bond program that includes an estimated $24 million for 82 new pre-kindergarten classrooms at 15 campuses. The additions would allow the district to serve 3,000 more 4-year-olds.

“Our goal is to offer the service at every school in every neighborhood,” said Michael Sorum, deputy superintendent for leadership, learning and student support services for the Fort Worth school district. “This bond will allow us to take a giant step forward.”

Teachers and other educators, including the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the United Educators Association, endorse the bond program’s investment in pre-kindergarten.

“Let’s start at pre-kindergarten building the foundation,” said Anne Abshire, a kindergarten teacher at Western Hills Primary with 38 years’ experience in the field. “Let’s get them learning letters, sounds, shapes, numbers and patterns.”

Abshire said pre-kindergarten gives students a definite advantage. Little ones exposed to rich vocabularies, numbers and social situations are better prepared for an education journey that includes ever more rigorous testing.

“The importance of this is huge,” Abshire said. “When a child comes to kindergarten without the background of pre-kindergarten, they already have an educational gap.”

The kindergarten gap

Universal pre-kindergarten is not a new idea, said Amber Brown, assistant professor of elementary education in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It wouldn’t be compulsory,” Brown said. “It would be like kindergarten is in Texas.”

While Texas public schools must provide kindergarten, parents aren’t required to enroll their 5-year-olds. But most parents choose to, Brown said.

She said a universal program would help families that can’t afford private pre-kindergarten but that earn too much income to qualify for the district’s program. These families, she said, would likely use universal pre-kindergarten.

Educators say they see an educational gap as early as kindergarten. Students who have been to pre-kindergarten know more words, and they are ahead in writing simple sentences.

Brown said the number of words that a 3-year-old knows varies vastly by economic background. Children from upper- and middle-income families typically speak 1,100 words by age 3 while those in lower-income families have a vocabulary of about 750.

Children from low-income families have been found to speak just under 500 words by age 3, Brown said.

She says pre-kindergarten helps bridge that gap. Early education offers learning opportunities that students may not get at home. And poverty widens the educational gap, she said.

“You are going to think of your basic physical needs first,” Brown said. “If that is consuming all of your thoughts, you can’t blame them [caregivers] for not thinking, ‘Oh, I should read to my child today.’”

‘A healthy dose of skepticism’

Critics of universal pre-kindergarten urge residents to take a closer look.

In a Reason-Rupe poll released in May, 57 percent of respondents believed that parents should pay for preschool.

Lisa Snell, director of education at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research organization based in Los Angeles, has written extensively about universal preschool. She and co-author Shikha Dalmia contend that gains made in early childhood appear to fade with time.

Early childhood programs have been greatly expanded since the 1970s, Snell said, but gaps and social problems persist. Snell likens the call for pre-kindergarten to the arguments made for expanding kindergarten.

“We made this same claim about kindergarten in the early 1950s,” she said, adding that various education markers haven’t improved dramatically, including graduation rates and SAT scores.

Snell encourages people to study outcomes in Oklahoma and Georgia, where universal pre-kindergarten is statewide.

“Our outcomes should really be much better,” Snell said. “The results we’ve had so far deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.”

The Fort Worth plan

Under the school district’s plan, 4-year-olds from any economic background could attend pre-kindergarten at a neighborhood school.

Funding in Proposition 1 would add classroom space for about 3,000 more kids, district leaders said. That’s how many children the district believes aren’t being served.

The district projects pre-kindergarten enrollment to be 7,000.

Sorum said the district would need about 175 additional certified early childhood teachers. Most of the cost would be offset by state reimbursements, while additional costs could be covered by the district’s general fund.

The district would receive half-day funding for each pre-kindergartner.

“Many of the costs in a school are covered in overhead that is already being paid in a school. Pre-K classrooms would not require additional principals, etc., so the half-day funding would cover a very large part of the funding,” Sorum said.

Fort Worth schools receive about $6,000 per child from the state. The district would receive $3,000 for each pre-kindergartner.

Currently, the district offers pre-kindergarten to children who meet certain guidelines, including English language learners, children of military personnel or those from low-income families. For example, the threshold for pre-kindergarten is a family of four with an annual income of $43,568.

Pre-kindergarten lessons are delivered in three styles:

• Dual language: Students learn in Spanish and English as they work to gain full literacy in both languages by fifth grade.

• ESL-based pre-kindergarten: Students with limited English skills work to gain literacy in an English as a second language program.

• Regular pre-kindergarten: Students from English-speaking families work to gain literacy.

What it looks like

In a dual-language pre-kindergarten class, Horn’s students move comfortably between reciting their letters in English and Spanish.

The room has all the standard aspects of any classroom: little girls with big hair bows, line leaders and nap time.

Horn has high expectations. Her students are expected to learn 25 vocabulary words a week. The more words they learn, the better they will likely perform in kindergarten, Horn said.

By the time her students reach fifth grade, they are expected to be literate in English and Spanish.

Lilith has a favorite book titled Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.

“Pete the Cat is walking,” she explained, turning the pages. “He sings a song. I love my white shoes.”

Asked whether she likes school, Lilith smiles shyly in typical 4-year-old fashion. After a few seconds, she responds: “Bien” (Good).

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram