The local funding for San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program has made all-day preschool possible for thousands of the city’s 4-year-olds. But the funding doesn’t go far enough to provide universal pre-k for all.
One of San Antonio’s suburban school districts launched a new program this year to bridge that gap for its residents. Families who live in the Southwest Independent School District now have access to free, all-day pre-k regardless of income.
At Big Country Elementary’s open house last week, 4-year-old Amariana met her teacher, picked out her cubby and dashed off to play.
She found a whiteboard on a child-sized easel and started to write with her mom’s help.
Her mother, Elitza Marie Holtz, said she’s excited Amariana is able to go to pre-k. It’s an opportunity her older daughter didn’t have.
“Unfortunately when my oldest was 4 we didn’t meet the qualifications — the eligibility requirements — that were needed to attend pre-k. So she missed out on pre-k,” Holtz said.
Texas funds preschool for 4-year-olds considered at risk of falling behind academically. Most children qualify because they don’t speak English or their families are determined to be economically disadvantaged. Kids who are homeless, in foster care or have parents in the military are also eligible.
Because their family made too much money to qualify for state-funded pre-k, Holtz said her older daughter wasn’t able to go to school until kindergarten.
“I would have (had) to pay,” Holtz said. “We looked at private school, and of course private Catholic school is a lot of money for the year. Or we would have to put her in daycare.”
But things are different this year. Southwest ISD’s new pre-k for all program provides space for all 4-year-olds who live in the district, including Amariana.
The new policy allows Georgann Kucher’s grandson Jaxson to go to school with his older brother.
“He wanted to come here with his brother, and that was the important thing. Keep the family together,” Kucher said.
Kucher said Jaxon’s mom had Jaxon enrolled for pre-k at IDEA’s new charter school down the street until Big Country’s principal Wendy Quillin gave them a call.
“Ms. Quillin was our hero. She came and she said, ‘No! We have pre-k for all this year,’” Kucher said.
A family of four needs to make less than $48,000 a year to qualify for pre-k under state rules. That means roughly 15% of the families at Southwest ISD aren’t eligible. In January, the district’s school board voted to give those families access to free pre-k too.
Patty Escobedo, executive director of student services at Southwest ISD, said it was important to make sure all of the district’s children had access to preschool is important because it helps develop social skills and provides the foundation for the rest of their education.
“If you’re the only child at home everything — your world — is kind of centered around you, and that’s not reality,” Escobedo said. “We wanted to be able to offer that early childhood learning opportunity for all of our students so they could have that exposure.”
The district plans to open one additional pre-k class at each of its 11 elementary schools. It’s added seven so far at a cost of around $650,000.
Escobedo said part of the goal is to give families like the Kuchers a reason to choose Southwest ISD over charter schools or a school in another district.
“Of course we want them to be in our schools because these are our schools, and their tax dollars are also funding our campuses,” Escobedo said. “We want them to be able to come to their local neighborhood (schools).”
Brandon Crisp, the district’s assistant superintendent of business and finance, said Southwest plans to pay for the additional classrooms through the early childhood allotment approved by Texas lawmakers in May.
Several San Antonio school districts have full-day pre-k, but it’s rare for a district to offer preschool to students who aren’t eligible under state rules.
A couple hundred families above the income threshold can access a reduced price seat at Pre-K 4 SA, but private preschool is still the only option for most families unless they’re in the military, make less than $48,000 a year or don’t speak English at home.
Southwest’s smaller neighbors to the south, Southside and Somerset, are the only other districts in the area that offer free pre-k regardless of income.