When Pre-K 4 SA opens its doors for the first time ever, there will be no school bell like there might be in a traditional school setting, but there will be a lot of excitement.
Pre-K 4 SA, which started as Mayor Julián Castro’s Brainpower Initiative, has been nine months in the making. Voters approved the measure in November with nearly 54 percent of the vote, which officially raised the city’s sales tax to the state cap of 8.25 percent.
The sales tax revenue will generate $31 million each year for the program.
Castro took the measure to the national stage in September 2012 when he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, touting education as one of his top priorities.
He told San Antonians he based his entire tenure as mayor on this one initiative.
"I'm looking forward to these first 700 four year olds getting an excellent education during their pre-k year," he said recently during a sit-down interview with TPR. "That's what we promised folks in San Antonio and that's what I want to see."
To say that he’s feeling the pressure to see the program succeed is an understatement. The city council, which was split on the idea of incorporating sales tax to fund the program, voted unanimously to send Pre-K 4 SA to the voters.
"I do feel that we need to make sure this is done very well, that it delivers a great educational experience to these young people. That's the test of success or failure," Castro said.
Leading the program forward
The Pre-K 4 SA board, led by Elaine Mendoza, hired Harlandale ISD’s Kathleen Bruck as its interim, and eventual permanent, CEO.
The two model education centers open this year are under the direction of Sandy Weser-Chavarria on the Northwest Side, and Belinda Gonzalez on the Southeast Side.
Opponents speak up
With all the fanfare for the program, many opponents believed it was rushed and not enough was known about what could actually be accomplished.
Members of the San Antonio Family Association voiced its concerns about the program.
Board member Patrick VonDohlen said it all happened too quickly. He worried people didn’t have enough information and said their concerns had the best interest of Pre-K 4 SA supporters in mind.
"We want to help...the mayor, the city council, [so they] don't become victims of a program...under government scrutiny," he said in the fall of 2012 during a protest on the steps of City Hall.
But Castro has long held the stance that if San Antonio doesn’t change its educational outreach to young children and their families, the city will fail to progress to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.
"I'm convinced that when we look back on Pre-K 4 SA 50 years from now, that it will have played an important role in changing the educational trajectory of this city," he said.
He took the time to criticize state leaders for failing to make early education a state-wide priority . Currently the state provides only enough resources for half-day pre-K.
"It does not make sense that Texas has such a low income cutoff, or any income cutoff, for a four year old to be able to get great pre-K," said Castro. "They need to make it, like we've tried to in San Antonio, they need to make pre-K available, more available to the middle class, and even above that."
The program puts forth lofty goals of reducing the achievement gap by at least 25 percent in language, 33 percent in math, and 90 percent in literacy when compared to kindergarten students who did not attend school at one of the centers.
Beyond pre-K, the program hopes to close the gap in the state's STARR standardized testing in reading and math assessment by at least 10 percent by the time the student is in the third grade.
Castro said the initiative is at the heart of what San Antonio needs to do for its young people.
"We need these young people, wherever they come from in the city, to be the ones who graduate from college and are able to take that job as an engineer, or able to start up a great business, or become a doctor and Pre-K 4 SA is going to deliver great education so they can do that," Castro said.
Curriculum and teachers
The program will use Grapevine, TX company Frog Street Press as its core curriculum program. Parents had the chance to see the nine program options in the spring and provide feedback.
Eric Smith will be using the curriculum as one of the master teachers hired by Pre-K 4 SA.
“I was really encouraging people, I was like, ‘this is such a great thing. We need this in our community. We need more kids in Pre-K,’” he said. So I encouraged people to vote when it was out there. Once I saw that they were hiring, I was like, ‘I would really would love to be a part of this.’”
In July, he talked about his expectations for the year.
“Really, what I’m doing is I’m not thinking of just this year for these kids or for any of my students,” Smith said. I’m thinking of them graduating high school. I’m thinking of them and going to college. And so you’re just starting them on that path, but you have that in mind all the way through, not just one year.”
Buildings don't get built this fast
Mark Granados, president of GFR Development Services, was selected to build the learning centers. He admitted the challenge was difficult, but luckily, he said, he already had a piece of property in mind.
"They approached us and we had a site ready to go," he said. "We’re really one of the only groups that could meet their timeline."
The Southeast Side center is a brand new building, located at 7031 S. New Braunfels Ave., on the campus of Brooks City-Base West. It will house the administration of Pre-K 4 SA and will train teachers. The Northwest Side center is located at 3635 Medical Dr., and is a former Southwest Airlines call center.
What would Pre-K 4 SA be without the students?
Brenda Garcia’s four-year-old son Christian will be one of the first 700 children to learn at Pre-K 4 SA.
As a kindergarten teacher herself, Garcia said she can tell which of her own students have been to pre-k and those who didn’t. After finishing paperwork to enroll her son, she said she is anxious for him to start.
"It's definitely going to help their vocabulary, their comprehension, I mean everything, their math skills, their writing skills and especially coming into kindergarten, that'll be a big help for us kindergarten teachers out there,” she said.
But the program has had its share of problems getting students enrolled in the program. The week of Aug. 5 was crunch time. The responsibility of enrolling the children fell to the seven participating school districts: Edgewood ISD, Harlandale ISD, North East ISD, Northside ISD, San Antonio ISD, South San Antonio ISD, and Southwest ISD.
With the school districts participating, the program would be eligible to receive federal funding.
Many districts did not have their enrollment finished by Aug. 5, so Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni gave the school districts until that Friday, Aug. 8, to submit the names of the students attending Pre-K 4 SA.
Zanoni said the districts had been cooperating well, but that registering even for their own pre-k programs doesn't finish until mid-August.
"What we've explained to them," said Zanoni, "is that this is brand new for us and we have a lot of things for the first time we're doing, like transportation and meals. And so we want more time to prepare all those ingredients."
As of Aug. 23, it remained unclear how far the program had to go to fill all the spots. Requests to the city manager's office went unanswered Friday.
Zanoni said the districts were doing what they could to finish enrollment.
"In the end, it's all about the kids of San Antonio," he said. "It's not about what district is doing a better job. It's about making the city a better place to live, and that's what we're working together to do."
Gonzalez, the Southeast Side education center director, said the relationship with the school districts was working well, but expects the kinks to be ironed out better for next year when the final two centers open.
"I think it is a learning experience,” she said. “Hindsight’s always 20/20, so there's some things that we might do differently. But I can't say enough about the incredible, the communication between us and the district liaisons and their willingness to do what we can to make this a smooth process and to work with parents, so that, the whole purpose and all of us are on the same team for kids."
Tracking students will be a major component of Pre-K 4 SA’s success. A spokesperson for Edvance Research, a local company which evaluates educational programs and compiles statistical information, expects the firm to officially receive a contract from Pre-K 4 SA to monitor students.
The spokesperson said more information will be available about how progress reports will be handled once the contract is officially extended.
But Garcia, who is Christian's mom, tracks her kindergarten students based on state standards, and believes the procedures will be similar.
"We have progress reports and we have - based off student work,” she said. “And we do reading inventories and we have certain state standards that we have to meet at certain points and we have to assess kids every fourth and nine weeks to see how they're progressing."
Castro also expects yearly reports so that when the next two education centers open this time next year, leaders will have an idea of what can be improved.
"San Antonio should know that we're not just hoping for success. We are actually measuring whether or not this initiative is successful,” he said. “Every year there will be a data report, comparing how well these students are doing to others. So people will be able to measure the value they're getting by investing in these four year olds through Pre-K 4 SA."
San Antonio-based Star Shuttle will be providing transportation services for the children in vehicles that have appropriate seat-belt capabilities for four year olds, officials said. Two staff members will be on each bus. Each center will have five transportation hubs to get the kids to and from school. Click on the interactive map to view the model education centers and each of the hubs for the centers.
First day jitters
The first day back is always a little nerve-wracking, but this time it's different. 700 children, nearly 100 teachers and staff, and the mayor are counting on the engine to roar perfectly when the key is put into the ignition.
“There's no magic bullet," Castro said. "By no means is this going to solve all of it. This is just one part of it.
"But what's happening in the year 2013 and these coming years is that we're changing the educational trajectory of this city for this coming generation and I guarantee that when that story is written in several decades, that Pre-K 4 SA will be a part of it."
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