San Antonio’s new citywide, full-day preschool program for low-income children was a community-driven initiative from day one, which might explain why this Texas city broke with stereotypes and voted to raise the sales tax to finance the program, now entering its second year. The inspiration was economic: When businesses such as Rack Space—a computing firm—and Toyota, said they couldn’t hire locally because the labor force wasn’t skilled enough, San Antonio took notice and decided to go straight to the root of the issue and tackle early-childhood education.
Following a series of community brainstorming sessions on civic improvement, a task force of education and business leaders in 2011 concluded that universal, full-day preschool would provide the biggest return on investment. With a plan in hand, then-Mayor Julian Castro campaigned for the program, and voters approved a sales-tax increase to fund it in November 2012. Nine months later, Pre-K 4 SA opened its doors.
Size of Community: 1.4 million
Public Preschool Enrollment: 1,450
Preschool Funding Level: $36.5 million (appropriation for 2014-15)
Ages Served: 4- and 5-year-olds
Type of Program: voluntary, full-day
The program started with about 700 pupils last year in two centers and has expanded to 1,450 pupils in four centers with the expectation it will grow to 2,000 in another two years. Children eligible for free tuition include those whose families qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, those who are homeless or have been or are currently in foster care, those who use English as a second language, and children of living or deceased military members. The remaining 10 percent of slots in the program are filled with youngsters whose families pay tuition on a needs-based sliding scale.
Children and families get a variety of services that go beyond teaching the ABCs. Parents can use computers, take classes, or speak with crisis counselors at a resource center, and pupils can be dropped off as early as 7 a.m. and picked up as late as 6 p.m., with transportation from designated sites.
But it hasn’t all been easy. The program partners with seven school districts within the city, and juggling those new relationships was tricky in the beginning. To make sure the program is on track and the districts are satisfied, Kathy Bruck, the Pre-K 4 SA chief executive officer, now regularly meets with the superintendents. Pupils’ progress is also monitored by an independent evaluator.
“We started out with most of our children not at the 4-year-old level,” said Ms. Bruck. “By the end of the year, we were at level on everything, and then we were above the nationally normed sample in cognition, literacy, and math skills. … So it’s promising for the first year.”