As a kindergarten teacher in Harris County, Blessy George has had a first-hand view of the impact early childhood education can have on a child’s academic future.
“At the end of kindergarten, there are high expectations from the students,” George said. “A lot of times, my struggling students at the end of the year are the ones who did not do pre-K. These kids just needed more time.” When it comes to time, there’s only so much a teacher can do to help all of their students achieve success.
George says she works with her students in small groups of four or five students put together based on academic performance. But when she moves on from small groups and into classroom-wide lessons, some students struggle to follow along.
The fight for early education in Texas has been a long one, but an important one, according to education professionals. Funding for pre-K has been granted and cut every few years since 2011. However, things are beginning to look up after lawmakers recently put money back into the annual budget for full-day pre-k for qualifying students.
While the bill represents a step in the right direction for accessible pre-K, Erin Baumgartner believes real progress starts by addressing Texan’s misconceptions of these valuable programs.
“Right now, pre-K is not the norm,” said Baumgartner, an early education researcher for the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University. “It’s not provided for all students. It’s provided for the at-risk populations, so it may be less common that everyone just assumes a child should be in pre-K somewhere. I think we should be talking about universal pre-K because it’s important to change the expectations and the norms around going to pre-K.”
To George and other teachers like her, pre-k could be considered a prerequisite to ensure success in kindergarten. “They need to learn certain things before they came into kindergarten,” she said. The prerequisites George wishes she saw in every student include identifying all 26 letters (upper case and lower case), identifying all letter sounds, identifying numbers 0-10, and writing your own name. “The challenge with pre-K is it’s not free for everybody — you have to qualify for it,” she said.
To qualify under the Texas bill passed in 2019, students have to be four-years-old, and must meet at least one of the following criteria: be from a low-income family, live in foster care or be homeless, have an active-duty military parent, be a child of a first responder or educator of the school district, or have limited English-speaking skills.
“There’s a lot of families who are not homeless or don’t qualify, but a lot of those families can’t afford to pay for pre-K, either,” George said. “Those are the kids who are really struggling.” To close the gaps for the kids “in the middle,” George works directly with the parents.
“A lot of these kids that did not do well, they end up repeating first grade,” George said. “So before that, I scare the parents into understanding that if they don’t do anything at home and they aren’t involved in their child’s academic success, then their child might have to repeat and no parent wants that.”
Educators like George and Baumgartner will continue to advocate for high-quality, accessible pre-K programs in Texas. Visit the Understanding Houston website to learn more about education in the Houston area.