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 about the trend with Spring Branch Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Blaine.
Blaine has spent 30 years in education and with Spring Branch ISD for 20 years of those years. The district has experienced a decline in Pre-K enrollment of 450 children. About 6 percent of the 1,500 or so enrolled children are still learning virtually; the rest are receiving in-person instruction.
Here are excerpts from Johnson’s questions and Blaine’s answers, edited for clarity.
Q: Parents may struggle with enrolling in remote or in-person pre-K. What do you see as the benefits of in-person pre-K?
A: Young children learn through concrete, hands-on experiences; it is very challenging to provide that type of experience over Zoom or virtually. There is only so much the teacher can do because the teacher is not there. So, there is an academic impact to that. It is the hands-on, it is the manipulative, the ability to interact with other kids. There is the academic piece of it but there is also the social, emotional piece of it. Learning how to interact with others, you can interact over Zoom, but it is not the same as when you are in a class with other students.
The other piece to that is the whole movement and activity. Three- and four-year-olds are still learning those gross motor skills and then those fine motor skills that will create that foundation for moving on to kindergarten and being successful. A virtual experience at this age is not going to be as rigorous or robust as an in-person experience.
A: For a parent struggling with trying to enroll their child for in-person, one of the things that might be on their mind is what does safety look like in a pre-K classroom? Can you talk a little bit about what safety protocols you all have put into place for all pre-K students that attending Pre-K in person in Spring Branch ISD?
A: We brought students back in-person on Sept. 8, and so in July our board adopted our plan called the “Learn SBISD Plan.” A portion of it is the academic plan and the safety plan.
We were fortunate that we were able to work with the team of doctors at Memorial Hermann Memorial City, right in our backyard. They have helped us with all of our safety protocols, and they have proven effective. We have the data to back that up. We have very stringent cleaning protocols which we have always had. But we have added capacity to our custodial staff to be able to clean more frequently especially those high touch areas.
Students do not share manipulatives or materials that typically they would have shared on a normal year. We do have Plexiglass screens on the tables, so when students are eating or when they are doing their work, they have a divider between themselves and student across or beside them. In a normal year, the students would cross-pollinate with other classes; we are not doing that because what our doctors have told us, to the extent that you can keep the same group of kids together, the safer and better off that you will be for spread.
Q: We know that enrollment is right around the corner for the fall. What would you tell parents who are trying to decide whether or not to enroll their child in pre-K at all?
A: The first thing that I would actually say is we are still enrolling for this year, so it is not too late to come, and we want kids to come. If you are still trying to decide about the last couple of months of school, we are still available for registration.
Registration for next school year starts first week in April. But what I would say to the parents is we now have solid data that there is very little spread in our schools. We have proven that especially at the pre-K level. I would contend that the students are safer at school than they may be at times when they are not in school, simply because we do have strict protocols, we do follow through with them, where our teachers are very consistent on how those are implemented.
I would just say to parents, this is your child’s future. There is no greater year that has an impact on a child’s life than pre-K. It is a critical year. I cannot stress that enough. The academic piece coupled with the social and emotional learning that they get as a pre-K student will set them up for success. Children that attend pre-K and have that solid footing and that solid foundation have significantly more earning potential. This is absolutely the truth and research supports it.
Q: Can you talk about what the implications of lower pre-K enrollment rates are for your district and on the larger community?
A: We talk about the academic impact for that one child but it ultimately impacts the entire Houston community. That is billions of dollars over time of either lost income without solid footing for the pre-K year. There is a financial impact for the child and for the entire Houston community.
A: What would you recommend to people today to help districts build back strong pre-K enrollment?
A: Again, it is not too late to register for this school year. I think we need for people to help us send the message that school is a safe place and your child is going to be safer at school than they are sitting at home, quite frankly for a number of reasons. The most influential thing that a parent can do for their child is to get them enrolled in a quality pre-K program, read to them, and support those fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy, and social/emotional supports.
We need the business community and everyone to spread the word that this is not about one year. This is about a lifetime of success and economic impact, not only for their own child but for the larger Houston community. This is one of the most important things, the business community, philanthropist, parents, community members, anybody that is seeking to help out with this, it is pivotal, it is important, it is key, and we need your help.
For information on how to enroll in pre-K, visit the Spring Branch ISD website at www.springbranchisd.com.
-by Jessika Leal