One of the two sophisticated early childhood centers that the Alief Independent School District opened for this school year includes an International Management District experience room.

Reflecting the colorful ethnic diversity of the district and the Alief area, the space includes mural-like images of a Mexican market and a Mexican folkloric dancer; a Chinese dragon, a model of a Vietnamese-style home  and a storytelling area that promotes the African custom of sharing stories orally.

International Management District room

Bringing the outside world so vividly into classrooms for 4-year-olds is a hallmark of the pioneering, new Martinez Early Childhood Learning Center and Jefferson Early Childhood Learning Center.

The room designs were based on recommendations of a Pre-K Task Force made up of district staff, the non-profits Good Reason Houston and Children at Risk, the Texas Education Agency and the Region 4 Education Center, along with other agencies and experts in early education.

“We wanted something different, not just a regular pre-K classroom, because we understand that students learn differently as 4- and 5-year-olds,” according to Martinez Early Childhood Learning Center namesake and Alief ISD early childhood coordinator Maria “Mari” Martinez.

“We have been talking about learning disguised as play for many years. Our pre-K students learn through purposeful playful experiences.”

The classroom designs are based on experiential learning created by Exhibit Concepts.

“It is immersive experiential learning environment, the ceiling, the walls, the floors, everything students are immersed in this experience,” Martinez explained.

Pre-K students go through 12 learning experiences throughout the school year, with names such as Tinker Town, Hidden Forces, Our Community, Going Places, Farm to Table, Pet Vet, Digging Dinos, Wild World and Healthy Me.

Besides the International District room, other rooms reflecting Houston include Space City and Gulf Coast.

Space City room

The pre-K programs are available to children free of charge if they are from lower income families or meet other qualifications, such as being the child of an active member of the U.S. military. Otherwise, monthly tuition per student is $675 per month if space is available.

Studies show that  full-day Pre-K students score higher than others on the 3rd grade state assessment reading tests because exposing children early to structured education environments is the best way to prepare them for elementary school and beyond.

Even the recess time looks different at the new centers. There are two playgrounds surrounded by the buildings, with hills for children to run on and trails for bike-riding.

Mealtime is also non-traditional. Food prepared in an on-site kitchen is served family-style in a common eating area.

The new centers were funded by bonds approved by voters in 2015.

“This is pre-K as it is meant to be,” Martinez said. “It should be about learning about the environment, gaining background knowledge about different things, but in a hands-on, playful way. Children at that age are not to be learning sitting down, lecture style, teaching from the front of the classroom,” Martinez said.

“It’s innovative because it is not done. In the Houston area it is not done. We are already looking how to extend the programs for kindergarten. We will not stop here.”

ISD trustees approved funding for three new centers, but shelved one after the pandemic reduced enrollment. The school retained funding to build a third or to enhance existing programs, Martinez explained.

To register pre-K children for the program or get more information, go online to

— By Jessika Leal