A few weeks into the school year, the students in Arlington teacher Lisa Ben-Shalom’s pre-kindergarten class already know the drill when it’s time to finish looking at their storybooks. She helps them out with a little song set to the tune of Frère Jacques.
Close your book. Close your book.
Put it on your shelf, carefully.
Thank you very much for treating books nicely.
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The task doesn’t involve numbers, letters or shapes. But the underlying message — that being a good student means following directions and being respectful — is an important cornerstone in the Arlington school district’s newly expanded, community-based pre-kindergarten program.
In August, administrators announced that they were adding seven sites and 14 classes to the initiative, which places certified pre-K teachers who work for the district in local day cares. The district already had 15 sites, including the one where Ben-Shalom teaches, The Children’s Place child-care center on Remynse Drive in east Arlington.
Arlington’s goal in expanding the program is to have more children ready for kindergarten success, said Connie Spence, principal of Kooken Education Center. She also oversees the community-based pre-K programs. The district provides free pre-kindergarten to children ages 3 and 4 who meet certain criteria identifying them as at risk.
The child-care students get the same three-hour-a-day curriculum received by pre-kindergarten students who attend a district school. The important difference is that a child-care center has wraparound care, which helps parents for whom a half-day pre-K program is logistically difficult.
“Most of our parents are working parents, single parents. They can’t leave work at 11 to pick up or drop [their kids] off at noon,” said Amy Skinner, owner and director at The Children’s Place. “This is just a win-win for them.”
Spence said district leaders have worried in the past when the number of students they were expecting in kindergarten didn’t match up with pre-kindergarten enrollment.
“We knew there were more 3- and 4-year-olds in the Arlington school district. So, we studied where those children were. What we learned is they were in day cares, and we wanted to go where the children are,” she said. “We want to help them get ready for kindergarten. We want them to be school-ready, not only academically but socially and emotionally.”
Spence said program leaders also want parents whose 3- and 4-year-old children are cared for at home to know that the free program would benefit them.
On a recent day, the 3-year-old students in Ben-Shalom’s morning class were learning to listen attentively to stories and practicing their alphabet by modeling clay into letter shapes. In addition to the basics of shapes, colors, letters and numbers, children gain maturity as they learn about how to share their needs with teachers and handle conflicts with other children, Spence said. They also learn about their community and what to expect from kindergarten.
Children in Texas are not required to attend pre-kindergarten.
Children in Texas are not required to attend pre-kindergarten. However, the Texas Education Agency does set pre-kindergarten guidelines to help school districts, day-care centers, Head Starts and private pre-K programs. The guidelines describe goals for the pre-K year in several “skill domains,” such as emerging literacy, mathematics, and social and emotional development.
Proponents of high-quality pre-kindergarten experiences for children point to the well-known Highscope Perry Preschool Study, which followed 123 at-risk students through preschool in the 1960s and well into adulthood. It found that children attending preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, avoid committing crimes and have higher incomes than those not attending preschool.
Today, researchers across the country continue to explore whether affects of a pre-kindergarten program are lasting and if they’re not, what can be done to improve the results, said Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Phillips and colleague William Gormley have studied students in the Tulsa school district’s universal pre-kindergarten program since 2001.
When examining students from the 2005-06 school year, the Georgetown team found that students who had been in the pre-kindergarten program were five to seven months ahead developmentally compared with those who hadn’t attended pre-kindergarten. Another study found affects lasting through third grade for some groups.
A big challenge for those who believe in the benefits of pre-kindergarten comes in how it is generally viewed as an add-on to the K-12 educational experience, Phillips said. This means it faces a higher level of scrutiny, she said.
There’s widespread acceptance if not pride in the fact that we have a public education system starting most places in kindergarten, but pre-kindergarten is still behind the coattails on that. It’s still not seen as part of that system except in rare exceptions. So there continues to be this burden of proof on why should we fund it.
Deborah Phillips, psychology professor at Georgetown University
“There’s widespread acceptance if not pride in the fact that we have a public education system starting most places in kindergarten, but pre-kindergarten is still behind the coattails on that. It’s still not seen as part of that system except in rare exceptions,” she said. “So there continues to be this burden of proof on why should we fund it.”
Arlington is not the only Texas district focused on reaching pre-kindergarten students. San Antonio city leaders recently highlighted the importance of pre-kindergarten by starting Pre-K 4 SA, a full-day pre-kindergarten program that also offers free care until 6 p.m. for qualifying families.
In 2013, Fort Worth school district voters approved a bond program that included funds to expand that district’s pre-K program to make it universal, which means it is free to all 4-year-olds in the district. The district has been steadily adding classrooms through bond-funded construction and converting available space. The district is also collaborating with child-care centers and nonprofit groups such as the YMCA and Head Start, said Michael Sorum, deputy superintendent for leadership, learning and student support services.
The number of Fort Worth children taking part in pre-kindergarten has grown. In the past, about 55 to 60 percent of new kindergarteners had been to a pre-K program. Now, the district estimates that number will jump to about 69 percent based on this year’s pre-kindergarten enrollment numbers, Sorum said.
“A large percentage of our students come to school with very minimal literacy skills. They’re coming with a great need, and all of our data supports that kids who go through the pre-kindergarten programs do better than those who haven’t. So, we wanted to expand the opportunities and increase their success,” Sorum said.
A closer look
The Arlington school district pre-kindergarten program is free for students who turned 3 or 4 before Sept. 1 and qualify based on income, language, homelessness or other factors. A tuition-based program is available for children who don’t qualify for free services. For more information, visit www.aisd.net/aisd/pk.