With state funding in place, school districts across Texas are now looking at the prospect of expanding their half-day prekindergarten programs to full-day.
Dallas ISD made the same change about five years ago. The district offers an example both of what other districts should keep in mind when they expand their programs, and the benefits they might expect to see.
The district offers free full-day pre-K for low-income or other qualifying 4-year-olds and half-day pre-K for 3-year-olds. It also has a tuition-based program for parents who don't meet the requirements but want to enroll their children in pre-K.
Although the change is only a few years old, the district can point to signs of success: students who attended full-day pre-K outperform their peers in reading and math through third grade, said Derek Little, the district's assistant superintendent of early learning.
"We know that this is paying off dividends far down the road," Little said.
Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced a multibillion-dollar deal to overhaul the state's school finance system. Included in that deal was money to pay for full-day pre-K programs for low-income and other qualifying students across the state. In districts like Dallas, where full-day pre-K is already in place, school officials may put that money toward other early learning priorities.
Research shows that full-day pre-K programs offer substantial benefits that half-day programs don't. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that students in full-day programs performed better academically and had better attendance than those in part-day programs.
When Dallas expanded its pre-K program to full-day, members of the district's early learning team made site visits at schools across the district to look over their pre-K classrooms. District officials wanted to make sure furniture, rugs, manipulatives for hands-on activities and other things in the classrooms were essentially the same from one school to the next, Little said.
The goal was to ensure that pre-K classrooms look and feel the same at every school around the district, Little said. That consistency conveys a message, he said: Pre-K instruction is important, sophisticated work, and it needs to be structured well.
As districts across the state begin to expand their half-day pre-K programs to full-day, it's important that they help teachers manage that change, Little said. Teachers who have been spending three hours a day with classes of 4-year-olds will now be with those classes for six hours, he said. Districts need to develop pre-K curricula that support full-day classes so teachers aren't left to make up what to do for half the day, he said.
Districts should also keep in mind what effective pre-K is supposed to look like, Little said. Those programs shouldn't just be watered-down kindergarten. To anyone who walked in, the things students are doing in a high-quality pre-K classroom should look not so much like schoolwork as like playing. Students might dress up or go through play stations each day, Little said, but teachers should be asking them purposeful questions. In the process, students learn skills like how to share, how to self-regulate their emotions and how to ask for what they need.
"It's about students figuring out who they are as little individuals," he said.
To that end, districts also need to make sure their pre-K teachers and assistant teachers have expertise in early childhood education, said Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that advocates for high-quality pre-K programs. Alabama's First Class Pre-K program is considered a national model.
Anyone can teach young children rote memorization skills like counting and saying their ABC's, Muhlendorf said. But teachers need special skills and training to help those students develop as whole people, she said.
As Texas education officials begin work on expanding pre-K programs statewide, they should look to make sure those programs are of high quality. A good place to begin, she said, would be making sure the program meets quality benchmarks laid out by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research.
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Each year, the institute releases a report showing how states measure up against a series of 10 benchmarks that researchers say states must have in place for their early childhood education programs to be successful. Those benchmarks include offering professional development opportunities for faculty and enacting policies that support picking good curricula and implementing them well.
Texas' early childhood offerings lag behind other states, according to the most recent report, which was released in April. Of the 10 benchmarks outlined in the report, Texas' state-funded early childhood program meets only four. Among other areas where the state falls short, Texas doesn't have statewide maximum class sizes or limits on teacher-to-student ratios in prekindergarten classes.
Although she called expanding half-day programs to full-day "a great move," Muhlendorf said lawmakers shouldn't think of it as a panacea. High-quality pre-K programs offer big benefits for low-income students, she said, but they don't fix all the challenges those students will face in their academic careers.
"I would say it's necessary but not sufficient," Muhlendorf said. "Pre-K is not an immunization against all later ills."