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San Antonio Pre-K Program Seeks To Fix Achievement Gap


We've been having conversations on this program and elsewhere on the network about inequality in education. Those gaps can start early, often before a student ever enters a classroom. Studies show that kids who don't get any pre-K instruction can lag a year behind those who do in math and verbal skills. In 2012, San Antonio vowed to fix that. The city enacted a 1/8 cent sales tax for a program called pre-K for SA, which now provides early childhood education for just over 2,000 children from low-income, military and English-learning families. Sarah Baray is the CEO of Pre-K for SA, and she is with us now.

Sarah Baray, thanks so much for talking to us.

SARAH BARAY: It's my pleasure. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So first of all, I just wanted to ask you to tell us why pre-K matters. You're a former teacher. You're an administrator. You've also taught education courses at the university level, so you kind of have that bird's-eye view of the whole system. Why does pre-K matter?

BARAY: Well, pre-K is really about brain development. We know that young children's brains develop about 90% of their architecture in the first five years. And so we really need to focus on those first years to make sure that children have the underlying academic concepts and brain structures to learn at high levels later on. So it's a really good investment, a good way to get children off to a great start.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that your program spends an average of more than $11,000 per child compared with about $9,000 per child for public school. What accounts for that difference? And I understand that that is a source of some criticism, so how do you answer that?

BARAY: Right. So what I say is we spend what it takes to get quality because we know that only if you have high quality are you going to get those long-term outcomes that are associated with early learning. But we also invest in our people, so we pay a livable wage to our assistant teachers and our teachers. But also, we offer a program that goes from 7:15 in the morning till 6 o'clock at night because we know that families - when they're working, they can't leave at the end of, you know, the school day at 3 o'clock to come pick up their children. And so ours is a 10-hour program for families that are working full-time or going to school full-time. And so those are - that's where some of the additional dollars go as well.

MARTIN: And then here's the other side of the criticism, as I understand it. There are kids in San Antonio who don't qualify for Pre-K for SA, as you - as we mentioned at the outset, it's for families of limited income. It's for military families and for English language learners. But then the kind of high-quality pre-K that you're talking about is very expensive. There have to be families that are stuck in the middle. They don't qualify for Pre-K for SA, but they can't afford these private programs. So what's the vision for them?

BARAY: Well, that's exactly right. So we go up for reauthorization in November. And in our next eight-year authorization, that's where we're going to focus. We are going to make Pre-K for SA free of charge to families who are in that middle class that - making up to $65,000 a year. They make too much to qualify for the free pre-K in the public sector but not enough to afford it in the private sector, so that's really where we're going to focus. And we're going to work with our partners in other programs to make those high-quality seats available to all families across San Antonio because that's really our goal - is to make sure that every family in San Antonio with a 4-year-old who wants their child to go to a high-quality program has access to that.

MARTIN: You know, I just can't gloss over the fact that we're having this conversation amid the coronavirus pandemic. You're in Texas, which has seen, you know, a big uptick in cases recently. You know, what's on your mind? I mean, pre-K is pretty high-touch, you know?

BARAY: Right.

MARTIN: That's the age group that likes to hug. And they're not the most pristine, so what's the thought about that?

BARAY: Yeah, so high-quality early learning really turns on those adult-child interactions. And so how are adults talking with children? What kind of questions are they asking? What kind of activities are they setting up for them? And all of that requires, as you say, a lot of personal interaction. We're adding in, you know, face shields and having - the air filters are going to be hospital quality. We're doing sanitation of all the materials even more frequently, touchless sinks, faucets - all those kinds of things. But we also know there's probably going to be times throughout the year - and maybe we start the year this way - remotely because it's just not safe for children to come back into the schools yet.

And so we have developed a program where we're asking families to be the assistant teacher with us, so we'll provide them with the guidance to be able to set up those kinds of activities in their home and give them the materials and talk them through that and engage with the children virtually so that when those times come when we can't have the classrooms open, we're able to continue supporting the family in being those first and most important teachers of their children because COVID or not, children's brains are still developing very rapidly. So we can't let this time period pass because children are only going to be 4 once.

MARTIN: So let's go back to the question we started our conversation with, which is that the inequalities that emerge when some kids have access to these enriching prekindergarten experiences on an ongoing basis and some kids don't - I mean, the program has been in place for a few years now. I understand it was kind of an uphill battle to get it in place. What does the data show? Has it mitigated some of these inequalities that we talked about?

BARAY: Yeah, absolutely. So we have a third-party evaluator who comes in every year and looks at our program. And what that evaluation has shown is year over year, children come into Pre-K for SA below the national norm in key indicators in cognition and literacy and mathematics. And they leave the program well above the national norm, meaning they're more than ready for kindergarten. And then we had a long-term impact study because one of the critiques of early learning is, oh, yeah, that's fine, but then it all fades away.

Well, what this study has shown is that the children who went through Pre-K for SA and had this really incredible experience have retained those benefits. They had better third-grade reading and math scores, better attendance and lower special education rates, so it's showing that this really works. So you can take children who some might label as the most educationally vulnerable, and if they have access to a highly skilled teacher and an evidence-based curriculum, they can learn at very high levels. And it sets them on a path for success.

MARTIN: Sarah Baray is the CEO of Pre-K for SA.

Sarah Baray, thanks so much for talking to us.

BARAY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.