5 reasons to maintain hope in Dallas ISD: The pre-K panacea

Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD
Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

It’s a crucial answer to myriad education problems. So why is Dallas ISD struggling to implement it?

Statistics don’t lie, and when it comes to the importance of educating children before they ever reach kindergarten, the truth is disheartening. All data shows that if students are behind by the time they reach kindergarten, it will be more difficult, more expensive and less effective to remediate them later on.

“This is as well researched as any issue you’re ever going to find,” says Alan Cohen, Dallas ISD’s executive director of early childhood. “The problem is, in practice, we haven’t caught up.”

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Statistics don’t lie, and when it comes to the importance of educating children before they ever reach kindergarten, the truth is disheartening. All data shows that if students are behind by the time they reach kindergarten, it will be more difficult, more expensive and less effective to remediate them later on.

So if pre-K is a crucial answer to myriad education problems, why is Dallas ISD struggling to implement it?

85-90

Percentage of brain development that happens by the time a child is 5

5

Percentage of the State’s education funding devoted to those first five years

4 of 10

Dallas ISD kindergarteners who begin the year “kindergarten ready”

3

Months of catch-up required for every month children are behind by age 5

27,000

Number of Dallas ISD 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify for state-funded half-day pre-kindergarten (the district offers full-day pre-K by tapping into other funding sources)

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6,900

Number of eligible children enrolled in pre-K for the 2014-15 school year, up from 3,300 in 2013-14

9,500

Number of eligible children already registered for Dallas ISD pre-K for the 2015-16 school year

96

Percentage of Texas parents who send their children to kindergarten, funded but not required by the state

350

Percentage increase in the likelihood that students will be “kindergarten ready” if they attend a Dallas ISD pre-K program

Source:
Dallas ISD executive director of early childhood Alan Cohen and national data

The school district has neither the funding, the space nor the quality of programming to meet the needs of their 27,000 children who deserve pre-kindergarten education, but Cohen and his team are trying to turn the ship around.

“You cannot find a school district where the third-grade reading rate is higher than the kindergarten readiness rate,” he says, and “if you’re a fourth-grade teacher and 70 percent of your kids walk in on day one unprepared, you have a tough job ahead of you.”

Challenge No. 1 is connecting with parents and convincing them to register their children for pre-K, Cohen says. It will require a cultural shift for pre-K to be as widely embraced as kindergarten, which is still optional for Texas students, though the vast majority attend. Efforts this past spring, such as yard signs pointing to the district’s pre-K registration web page and a “pre-K registration week” push, increased enrollment numbers by nearly 40 percent since last year.

Once the district recruits students, however, there has to be space to educate them. Challenge No. 2 is that though more parents are registering for pre-K than ever before, “they’re often registering at schools where we’ve run out of classroom space, and it’s hard to ask parents to drive across town,” Cohen says. Right now, most of the pre-K classroom space is in the center of Dallas, and the district expects the student population to shift outward over the next few years, so it is “looking strategically at the outer edges,” he says. This may mean more classroom space at existing buildings, and it may mean entire campuses devoted to pre-K; both would no doubt be addressed in November’s tentative bond election, which the board hadn’t yet ratified at press time.

Even if the district can create space, however, and even if students fill those classrooms, there’s still a question of what they will learn. Those statistics that show students succeed with more pre-K education? “All of that research is done on high-quality programming,” Cohen says. “The system in Texas and in urban districts across the country is designed to get as many kids in the schools as possible, at as low a cost as possible, and just call it pre-K.”

Dallas ISD has made significant strides in the last few years, but “in no way are we anywhere close to a victory lap,” Cohen says. “There’s still a less than one in two chance of students being kindergarten ready, and that tells us we have a long way to go with our quality.”

So quality is challenge No. 3 for the district. “The biggest piece is that the State of Texas puts pre-K teachers in a terrible position,” Cohen says. Teachers receive degrees that encompass early childhood through sixth-grade with very little time spent on pre-K, he says, “so we’re training our teachers to be excellent fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teachers.” The onus is on teachers to train themselves and on individual school districts to train their teachers, which is “exactly what we’re doing,” Cohen says.

One of the biggest benefits of being the 13th largest school district in the country, he notes, is that pretty much any expert will answer a phone call from Dallas ISD. “I’m absolutely confident we’re going to have the highest quality pre-K program in the State of Texas when all is said and done,” Cohen says.

Starting with 4-year-olds, however, may be too late. Challenge no. 4 is creating educational opportunities for children 3 and even younger — and not necessarily inside the walls of a school.

“I fundamentally don’t believe early childhood problem can be solved by the traditional little red brick schoolhouse,” Cohen says.

The district works with religious communities, nonprofit organizations and already-established child care facilities to funnel resources toward young children and also parents. “We’re trying to squeeze every penny,” Cohen says, in an effort to fund four years of development in front of traditional pre-K through 12th grade — a difficult task when the State funds merely a half-day of a single year.

And that’s the final and largest challenge: the money to pay for all of this.

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“We are making a deep, deep investment as a school district and as communities, and we need the help of our state,” Cohen says. “Folks in Austin have told me representatives count every phone call as 100 phone calls because they assume there are 99 people out there who are not going to pick up the phone.”

The state legislature voted last session to set aside $130 million in grant money over two years for Texas school districts’ pre-K programs. It amounts to $600-$1,500 per eligible pre-K student — a step in the right direction, Cohen says, but still not nearly enough.

“There’s no way around this,” he says. “Excellence is expensive.”

Why universal pre-K will have to wait

Pre-K is free and available to Dallas ISD 4-year-olds and even some 3-year-olds — as long as they qualify. This means children who are either economically disadvantaged, non-English speakers, homeless, part of an active military family, or currently or previously in foster care.

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As of now, the district doesn’t offer tuition-based pre-K to students who don’t meet one or more of these criteria. One reason is that it lacks the space for its eligible students so can’t justify opening classrooms up to ineligible students, says Alan Cohen, Dallas ISD’s executive director of early childhood. Even if spots are open at the beginning of the school year, pre-K enrollment numbers climb throughout the year — from 6,700 at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year to 6,900 at the end, for example.

Plus, students from “developmentally supportive home environments,” as Cohen describes them, typically enter kindergarten ready for school, and “our ultimate goal is to make sure kids are on track for success.”

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Creating enough resources for all children and creating a truly excellent pre-K program have to come first, he says.

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“If we can really get this right, as a community, we really hope that Dallas will be in a position in several years to have a conversation about universal pre-K,” Cohen says. “We’re not in an honest position to have that conversation right now.”

See all 5 reasons to maintain hope in Dallas ISD

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