The lottery-based program, which allows 144 4-year-olds to attend preschool programs at four centrally located campuses, was the district’s response to a growing demand from families who don’t qualify for free preschool services at their neighborhood schools.
“We’ve noticed a trend in phone calls and emails inquiring if we offer programs for pay if they don’t meet the eligibility,” said Kristi Cobb, Mansfield’s director of early literacy.
Mansfield began exploring how to offer these families an early learning option. Now, as the district welcomes a new set of preschool students for a fee, it joins a growing number of North Texas school districts trying to find resources to expand pre-kindergarten programs.
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Arlington, Grapevine-Colleyville and Northwest are among Tarrant-area public school systems that have already started these programs. At Keller schools, children of employees are able to pay tuition to attend the district’s preschool program.
In Fort Worth schools, the county’s largest school system, the district uses money from its general fund to offer a program that allows all 4-year-olds access to free pre-kindergarten classes.
Cobb said parents know the research that shows ages 3 through 5 are key for cognitive, social and literacy development.
“It’s a critical period of brain development,” Cobb said, adding that families want to find the best fit for their 4-year-olds and sometimes the public neighborhood school where older siblings already attend is the right fit.
“It’s convenient for parents,” Cobb said. “They know the school. They know the teachers are certified.”
Educators said as families ask for more high quality preschool, public school districts are trying to meet an emerging demand despite having limited classroom space and funding.
“People are coming up with many different kinds of ways to provide children and families with good programs,” said Carol Hagen, director of the University of North Texas’ Child Development Laboratory.
These efforts are part of a complicated early childhood learning discussion that often touches on the subject of universal pre-kindergarten, Hagen said. But the term “universal” means different things to different people, she said, adding that in countries such as Sweden it means a national taxpayer-funded program for all children.
“In this country, universal preschool doesn’t mean universal,” Hagen said.
Preschool for Texans
Enrollment in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten is not mandatory in Texas. In fact, the state’s mandatory age of school attendance is 6 as of Sept. 1 of the current school year. For most 6-year-olds, that means first grade.
But Texas is required to provide free half-day pre-kindergarten classes when 15 or more 4-year-olds qualify under one of the state’s eligibility groups. Those are:
▪ English language learners.
▪ Participation in the national free or reduced-lunch program.
▪ Being the child of an active duty member of U.S. armed forces.
▪ Being the child of an active duty U.S. military personnel injured or killed in the line of duty.
▪ Being in foster care.
▪ Being the child of emergency first responders.
Families with children who fall outside these categories typically rely on private preschool, early childhood learning centers or daycare centers for pre-kindergarten programs.
School districts get funding for the state-eligible preschool students, so to expand preschool programs districts have to find money.
“We’ve got to start taking care of kids,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said during a recent forum that addressed public school financing, economic growth and taxes. “We’ve got to get them prepared.”
Texas allows school districts to charge a tuition if they choose to expand preschool programs.
Districts work with the state to develop tuition specific to their communities.
“We are given a tuition schedule,” Cobb said. “It’s not something that we develop locally.”
Paying for public preschool
The first class of Mansfield’s tuition-paying 4-year-olds will be selected through a lottery in February.
Starting next school year, students selected will attend morning or afternoon half-day sessions at four campuses, including the newly opened Dr. Sarah K. Jandrucko Academy for Early Learners.
Each class will have 18 students, a certified teacher and a teaching assistant. Their learning experiences will be guided by a locally developed curriculum , Cobb said.
The effort is generating excitement. Mansfield responded to the demand by opening 20 tuition-paying slots this spring at the new academy. Students who are 4 and will be in kindergarten next year can apply for a separate lottery. Those classes will begin on March 1.
A similar demand by parents prompted Northwest schools to start a tuition-based preschool program last school year. The program is completing its second year.
“Families with young children recognize the need for quality preschool experiences for their child,” said Deanne Colley, Northwest’s early childhood coordinator. “Providing students with a foundation for kindergarten is very important and exposure to the education setting is beneficial to many students.”
The fast-growing and sprawling Northwest school district includes portions of Denton, Tarrant and Wise counties. It has 18 elementary schools.
This year, there are 298 preschool students in the free program and 60 who are paying tuition. The $3,778 tuition is payable in 10 installments.
Like Mansfield, the tuition-based slots are limited and chosen through a lottery.
A variety of bills addressing pre-kindergarten schooling have been filed in the Texas Legislature.
For many lawmakers, the question is how to fund increasing services.
Former state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the former chairman of the Texas House Public Education Committee, said this year is an unusual time when lawmakers have already said they have a little more money to work with in funding schools and school initiatives.
“It’s imperative we step up to fund the things that work,” the Killeen Republican said recently in Fort Worth. “We need to give (children) a boost early in life.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed Senate Bill 36 to create universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds and expand half-day pre-kindergarten to qualifying at-risk 3-year-olds.
An identical measure, House Bill 189, was filed in the House by state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City.
At the same time, matching proposals by state Reps. Gene Wu and Shawn Thierry, both Houston Democrats, would expand half-day free pre-kindergarten to full days for certain children: HB 752 and HB 612.
A plan by state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houton, would limit pre-kindergarten classes to no more than 18 students: SB 301.
And state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed House Joint Resolution 49, which would allow casinos in Texas to be operated in counties that have approved casino gaming — to provide funding for pre-kindergarten programs. Only five casinos could be operated and only in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Galveston and Harris counties.
The proposed bills being considered this legislative session that runs through Memorial Day are a sign that families and communities want to invest in preschool programs.
Educators said demand will likely continue to grow. Many parents want their children to be school ready and are focused on numbers, letters and colors. But educators stress that a key piece to early learning is emotional and social learning.
“How do you cope when you get upset?” said Cheryl Mixon, Fort Worth’s executive director of early learning, describing how preschool helps 4-year-olds learn to manage their emotions. She said when parents and educators can help usher kindergarten-ready students.
“It sets the foundation for all academic success,” Mixon said.