Five years after it began, Dallas ISD's revamping of its early learning strategy appears to be paying dividends, according to a report given Thursday to the district's board of trustees.
Derek Little, the district's assistant superintendent of early learning, told the board that Dallas students who enroll in pre-K programs are more likely than students statewide to read on grade level by the time they reach third grade.
About 44% of Dallas students who were enrolled in pre-K during the 2014-15 school year scored "meets grade level" as third-graders on last year's State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, tests, Little said. That's compared with 36% of last year's third-graders who were eligible for pre-K but didn't enroll, and 43% of third-graders statewide.
The students included in the report were enrolled in pre-K during the 2014-15 school year, when the district adopted a new early learning strategy. As a part of that strategy, the district began offering pre-K programs to qualifying 3- and 4-year-olds, including full-day programs for 4-year-olds at a time when the state only funded half-day programs.
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Results were especially pronounced among African American students. During the 2017-18 school year, just 24% of third-graders who had been enrolled in pre-K met the grade-level threshold in reading. Those students were enrolled in pre-K before the expansion. The following year, 30% of African American third-graders who had been enrolled in pre-K scored at grade level in reading.
More recently, the district expanded the program to allow parents who didn't qualify to enroll their children in free pre-K to instead enroll them on a tuition basis. Then, in June, the board approved a scholarship program to expand access to those classes. Under the program, students with limited English proficiency and students who fall into the lowest-performing group on the STAAR test are eligible to enroll in pre-K programs tuition-free.
The new scholarship program also raises the income cutoff for free pre-K programs from $47,638 to $77,251 for a family of four. Any student whose family falls below that threshold may enroll in pre-K tuition-free, whether they fall in any other category or not.
Experts say it's critically important for students to read at grade level by third grade because it's a predictor of success or failure later in their academic careers. Students who can't read proficiently by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school before graduating from high school, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.