Just weeks after the city of San Antonio launched its innovative, $248 million Pre-K 4 SA program for preschoolers from poor and working-class families, administrators have already made adjustments both large and small to improve the system.
Parents and children were impressed by the knowledgeable staff, a curriculum that’s both high-tech and high-touch, and sparkling new facilities on opening day last month. But the enrollment system, in particular, proved cumbersome. That challenge, in part, may be to blame for the 80 seats still unfilled at one of the two preschools now in place, said Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni.
The citywide preschool program is the brainchild of Mayor Julian Castro, a high-profile Democrat who pushed through an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax hike to finance the project. The objective over the next eight years is to educate 22,400 4-year-olds who otherwise would be ineligible to take part in other school district preschool programs.
“Pre-K 4 SA is off to a strong start,” Mr. Castro said in an e-mail interview. “In the 10 months after voters approved the program, we stood up two centers, hired dozens of teachers and support staff and, more importantly, watched more than 600 4-year-olds begin their academic careers in a high-quality environment.” He added that he is “fully confident that ... our relationships with local school districts will mature in the coming years to the point where we reach every available child that is hungry to learn.”
Ashley Johnson, the mother of twin 4-year-old girls who attend the preschool on the city’s south side, expects the program to encounter some growing pains, but is happy with what she’s seen so far.
“I think they’re going to be well advanced when they hit kindergarten next year,” she said of her children. She cited friendly and responsive teachers, spacious classrooms with large windows, and classroom iPads.
Meanwhile, the city is pushing forward with the construction of the western- and eastern-area preschools, even as critics continue to question the need for a program that they deem too expensive and say duplicates other preschool services already offered in San Antonio.
San Antonio has 15 separate school districts within its borders, enrolling a total of 315,000 students. The seven districts partnering in the preschool program are each allotted a number of seats based on their populations and will receive professional development, a chance to apply for competitive grants totaling $5.4 million and monthly on-campus workshops for students’ families on literacy and numeracy.
But the city has not done a thorough needs assessment, said Jill C. Thrift, a San Antonio resident and critic of the program who has been a critic of the program since its inception.
“My take is that, outwardly, their marketing firm has done a remarkable job of projecting an amazing program,” said Ms. Thrift, who has a Ph.D in early-childhood education. “But I don’t see the innovations.”
It’s also possible that the southern preschool campus has open slots because the poorest children took assignments in Head Start or other district-based programs, proof she said, that Pre-K 4 SA is a duplication of services.
Mayor Castro, however, argues that while the federal Head Start program and school-district-based alternatives afforded a total of 3,400 San Antonio children preschool, another 2,300 were not served.
San Antonio is not the only municipality offering city-run preschool. San Francisco partnered with its school district to offer a comprehensive preschool program called First 5 San Francisco in 2005, said Laurel Kloomok, executive director. That program is open to all 4-year-olds, without income restrictions.
In San Antonio, those eligible for Pre-K 4 SA include children whose families’ income falls at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (or about $42,000 for a family of four); who are homeless or one-time or current wards of foster care; who are English-language learners; or who have a parent who is a living or deceased member of the U.S. armed forces.
An additional 10 percent of the seats are reserved for families who belong to none of the designated categories and are chosen by lottery.
The program begins at 7:15 a.m., and aftercare runs until 6 p.m. Such options make it possible for working families to participate, said Pre-K 4 SA CEO Kathleen Bruck. Many school districts only offered part-day programs, she said.
The preschool on the north side of town immediately filled up its 350 seats, Ms. Bruck said. Moreover, 1,000 people applied for the 70 slots available through the lottery.
The preschool on the south side of town, by contrast, has slots for 350 children, but only 270 have enrolled.
The reasons for the disparity are complicated, Ms. Bruck said: Families in that area are less likely to have reliable transportation to the school bus stops, which are located at community centers and libraries, or they may have had less access to advertising for the program and did not know about it.
It is also reasonable to assume that some parents might have been confused by the enrollment process, Ms. Bruck said, which required three sets of paperwork be filed at three different locations.
“It was way too cumbersome,” Ms. Bruck said, adding that registration began late in July—long after many families had already committed to a preschool or day-care plan.
Ms. Bruck said she is working with the Pre-K 4 SA’s seven partnering districts to smooth out the process and start it earlier.
My kid was chosen for the South center, which is too far from us,” a mother who wished not to be identified said in a Facebook message. “It was not the center where I had wanted him to go.” She also expressed safety concerns about the preschool’s neighborhood.
Ms. Bruck, however, said that safety is a priority. For example, staff members ride on the buses with students, and campuses include a process to ensure that children are picked up by the correct caregivers.
It was also a surprise that the after-care program has been so popular, Ms. Bruck said, adding that administrators realized they needed to improve that area of the curriculum.
“Extended day had a huge turnout—50 percent of kids participate in it,” Ms. Bruck said. “We tried to think about how it’s a long day for teachers who start at 7 a.m. and for kids who start at 7:15 a.m. We said, ‘What can we do to make sure it is fun to teach and fun to learn?’ ”
The city also is partnering with institutions such as the San Antonio Museum of Art and the San Antonio Children’s Museum, which will offer ongoing programs. In addition, a professor from Trinity University will conduct hands-on science lessons.
In the end, staffing changed, too, Ms. Bruck said.
“Teachers will work until 5 p.m., and we’ve hired four additional assistants to work flex schedules from 9:45 to 6:15,” she said.
Administrators also quickly realized a pullout math and science program wasn’t working well for the children, so they altered the curriculum, Ms. Bruck said. Now field specialists teach directly in the classrooms.
The key to success may be the flexibility and responsiveness of the Pre-K 4 SA program, said Mr. Zanoni, the deputy city manager. Surveys will be given to participating families as soon as possible, and informal conversations will continue to take place between teachers, administrators, and families, he said.
Priscilla Flores said her daughter, for example, “comes home starving” because she doesn’t like the sophisticated meals the city is offering in an attempt to teach nutrition.
“I like that they do provide different things she can try, but lots of them are like pork tacos, and they put spices in it—who is going to eat that as a 4-year-old?” Ms. Flores said.
Still, she added, “I think I could go in and maybe I would be listened to or at least given a chance to talk.
“I haven’t taken the opportunity to do that—maybe I will soon.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Mostly Smooth Start Greets Pre-K Launch in City of San Antonio