Research shows that children who participate in high-quality pre-K programs are more likely to read on grade level by 3rd grade, and that students who do have a greater chance of graduating from college and being career-ready.
But pre-K enrollment has fallen short across the nation for a variety of reasons, and now it has been stunted further by the pandemic.
Good Reason Houston, an education non-profit through which business and community leaders partner with school districts to improve education, recently spoke with local educators about how districts are addressing the enrollment decline.
Ellie Johnson, head of Early Learning for Good Reason Houston, spoke with Mari Martinez, coordinator of the Early Childhood Department in the Alief Independent School District. Martinez works with a team of early childhood coaches and campus content specialists in addition to the pre-K and kindergarten teachers for the 24 elementary campuses in the district. Pre-COVID ,the district served about 2,500 pre-K students, however. This year the number is closer to 1,400 students. The district is still enrolling students for this school year.
Here are excerpts from Johnson’s questions and Martinez’ answers, edited for clarity. Questions and answers were edited for clarity.
Q: Why is pre-K so important?
A: The main reason that pre-K is so important is that 90% of the brain develops by age 5 and it is important to make sure that we are providing as many opportunities as we can to our youngest learners by offering a program that is engaging and purposeful and playful. This is the reason why early childhood has been a district priority in Alief for the past six years, and one we are transitioning into full-day across the district, and building pre-K centers.
We understand the importance of those early years and continue to work to ensure that we have the program that is developmentally appropriate and supports all areas of development, including early literacy, language development, early math skills, social/emotional skills, just to name a few.
Q: This school year Texas saw an overall 22% decline in pre-K enrollment. This makes this a statewide problem. What were some of the challenges that may have led to this decline?
A: Some of the challenges that we have seen that are contributing to a decline in our enrollment are that when we started the school year, all our students were in virtual classrooms . When we began transitioning students into brick and mortar, we started with early grades, and pre-K and kinder students were the first ones back into the buildings and face-to-face instruction. We still offered the option of virtual because there were those families that preferred this for safety reasons and about half of pre-K and kinder students remained virtual after we opened our doors.
Since pre-K and kinder is often the first time many of our students are in a school setting, these students need a lot of support in order to engage in a virtual environment, and also as they learn to navigate in our learning management system because it is the first time a lot of them are encountering it. Other challenges that we are encountering had to do with concerns that parents have regarding safety and social distancing guidelines in the face-to-face environment, as well as concerns over screen time in the virtual environment.
Alief has spent a lot of time letting parents know how we are following safety guidelines in face-to-face as well as how we have adapted the pre-K curriculum to make sure that children are not in front of a device for extended periods of time. We make adaptations to our curriculum that allows for parents to be able to follow it at home at their own pace.
Q: We have heard why pre-K is such a critical year of learning for students. Unfortunately, research is showing that the large learning gaps resulting from COVID 19 are being felt by our schools’ youngest learners. Can you talk about why that is the case?
A: I think there are several reasons why learning gaps are found in our youngest learners. One of the most important reasons is the reduction in playful activities, I believe. It is through purposeful play that our young learners learn and practice what they have learned and students who are in a virtual classroom do not have as many opportunities to engage in this type of play.
Even students in our face-to-face classrooms may have seen a reduction in those type of collaborative playful activities that are usually found in our centers, due to strict social distancing guidelines. In our case we have been working with our teachers to find alternatives to the usual center activities. In Alief our early childhood department has been working and collaborating closely with the counseling department to make sure in our curriculum that we were addressing the social and emotional skills that have always been so important in pre-K but even more so during these difficult times.
Another important area of instruction for pre-K and kinder is teaching foundational skills and oral language skills. There are different challenges, but one of things we learn to do this past year is learned to be creative and think outside the box to make that our students are still receiving the skills they need to be kinder ready…so we are addressing those challenges and trying to overcome them.
Q: What does enrollment look like for your district? What is the first step families should take if they are interested in enrolling their child in pre-K?
A: The process is completely online, and it has been like that for the past couple of years, so that has not changed. Registrars from each campus will follow up them about paperwork that might need to be submitted — which can also be submitted digitally. In Alief all our information is posted and is sent home in English and Spanish. We started pre-enrollment in early March, but we will be holding an event virtually on April 8.
For pre-K enrollment information, visit the Alief ISD website at www.aliefisd.net.
–by Jessika Leal