Sitting around a small table a few feet above the ground, 4-year-olds carefully fill in the lined pages of their color sketchbooks, occasionally reaching for a red plastic basket to grab a fresh marker. A boy draws a yellow sun, explaining to the teacher’s aide that he is drawing yesterday’s weather.
“Yo dibujé el clima de ayerwrites the assistant on a post-it that she places on her page.
At a nearby table, another group uses toy cars to trace the outline of large letters, deftly turning the wheels along the curves of an S and the sharp angles of an E. In 10 minutes, they will be turning to another station during that hour. -long activity in a bilingual Ysleta Pre-K Center class.
Next fall, more 4-year-olds in El Paso County will have access to free full-day pre-kindergarten, as more districts across the region roll out universal pre-K programs open to all students, regardless of regardless of eligibility, space permitting. By the 2022-23 school year, seven of the county’s nine districts will offer universal pre-K.
Kindergarten, like kindergarten, is not compulsory in Texas. Texas public schools are only required to provide free pre-kindergarten to students who meet certain criteria, which is largely tied to low family income or limited English proficiency. Anthony and Tornillo are the only districts in El Paso to offer pre-kindergarten exclusively to state-eligible students.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature required districts to provide a full day of pre-kindergarten rather than half a day for eligible students, giving districts three years to implement it.
Schools in El Paso are going above and beyond the state minimum as part of an effort to improve educational attainment in an area that lags behind other parts of the state in terms of the percentage of residents with a post-secondary degree or diploma.
“It’s so important for us to bring the kids in as early as possible and start working on that basis with phonics, math, social skills, teamwork – all those important things that are skills they will need for the rest of their lives,” said Veronica Vijil, superintendent of the Fabens Independent School District.
She co-chairs Early Matters El Paso, a coalition of education, business, and labor groups working to expand high-quality early education offerings. Fabens ISD has had a universal preschool since the last school year.
“(Universal pre-K) is leveling the playing field,” Vijil said.
According to data from the Texas Education Agency, students who attend pre-K are more likely to be ready for kindergarten than those who don’t. In 2019-20, the last year before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted schooling, 41% of state-eligible students attending pre-K entered elementary school as ready for kindergarten in the Region 19, which includes El Paso and Hudspeth counties. That same year, only 26% of eligible area students who did not enroll in pre-K were considered ready for kindergarten.
The Ysleta Independent School District has seen an increase in educational performance since moving from half-day pre-kindergarten to full-day in the fall of 2019. Midway through this 2021-22 school year, 92 % of its pre-K students were rated as “on track” in math, 72% in letter knowledge and 84% in phonological awareness, according to YISD data. In each category, students had already exceeded the level of proficiency achieved by students at the end of the 2018-2019 school year (the last full year before the pandemic).
Stephanie Rojas, who has been teaching pre-kindergarten at YISD for 17 years, says her 4-year-olds are starting the school year off as “little blank slates.” Most don’t know how to write their name, and zipping up a backpack and putting on a jacket can be a challenge. Many are shy and shy.
“Throughout the year, it’s just leaps and bounds,” Rojas said. “At the end of the day, they’re very independent and sometimes I even ask them, ‘why am I here guys? You don’t need me here anymore.
YISD was the first district in the El Paso area to offer free Universal Pre-K starting in the 2015-16 school year, before briefly returning to eligibility criteria in the fall of 2019. Socorro ISD has followed suit in 2016-17 by offering a universal pre-K.
The 2022-23 school year will be the first time El Paso ISD has offered universal pre-kindergarten, having previously allocated multiple spaces to ineligible students.
Because the state only partially funds pre-K for eligible students, districts must fund a large portion of the programs themselves. But district administrators say universal pre-K is worth the cost. This school year, YISD alone has budgeted more than $6 million for its two pre-K centers, which together serve about 500 students.
By the time students finish pre-K, they are able to recognize letters, know letter sounds, recognize numbers, count and do some basic addition and subtraction, Rita Lopez-Rodriguez said, director of the Ysleta Pre-K Center. During the second half of the year, students begin to pronounce words to read simple sentences.
Pre-K enrollment for the 2022-23 school year opened earlier this month, and districts are working to enroll as many young learners as possible. Some administrators and teachers see this fall as the first opportunity to push full-day pre-kindergarten after the pandemic hiatus and subsequent drop in enrollment in the early elementary grades.
Statewide, pre-K enrollment dropped 22% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, largely because many parents didn’t want to take remote instruction with their youngest students. .
Statewide data was not available for this year, when schools resumed in-person learning, but reports from some districts in El Paso show pre-K n has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. That’s partly because COVID-19 vaccines aren’t available for younger students, Vijil said.
Back in the Ysleta Pre-K Center classroom, a group of students superimpose flat plastic geometric shapes onto the outline of a motorcycle. As they fit the hexes and trapezoids together, the bike takes shape. A little girl reaches out to help her classmate fit a patch on the tire.
It’s interactions like these, Rojas said, that reflect the importance of pre-K.
“For any kid going through pre-K, I really believe it’s a great stepping stone for them,” she said. “It’s a fundamental skill that will continue with them forever.”