This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle, and can be found here. Photo: Kirk Sides / Staff Photographer
There’s nothing cuter than 4-year-olds toting too-big backpacks with their eyes wide and curious as they walk onto a school campus ahead of the first day of prekindergarten.
But Pasadena ISD teachers who will greet the nearly 2,500 novice scholars in the program are looking beyond the excitement to a year filled with essential learning to establish the fundamentals of education that will carry the youngsters through their school careers.
With an enrollment of 54,000, the district used recent additional state funding to add 20 full-day prekindergarten classes. The district will now offer 105 out of 119 pre-K classes as full-day sessions this school year. Terry said the number of full-day classes will increase as time goes by. All 36 of PISD’s elementary campuses now have a pre-K class of some sort.
“Pre-K is crucial,” said Elizabeth Flores, a pre-K teacher at Bailey Elementary School. “People often assume we just play all day and, yes, play is heavily incorporated (in our learning), but we hit on several concepts.”
Flores said, during their school day, her kids will begin to learn phonics and concepts of reading including how books and words work. Also covered will be punctuation and even poetry.
Rebecca Terry, Pasadena ISD’s early childhood coordinator, said concepts of pre-K learning serve a variety of purposes, not just strictly academic.
“In class the kids are learning how to get along with others and how to be kind to others,” she said. “We explore different cultures, and we learn to accept that we are very different but very much alike.”
The state funds pre-K for children considered high-risk. Those who qualify include kids who receive free or reduced lunch, those with limited English skills and children of active, wounded or deade military members. Also eligible are children who are homeless or are in foster care or whose parents are first responders who have received special recognition.
Both Flores and Terry said this type of instruction helps children to feel safe in the classroom environment.
‘Make them feel safe’
“That’s my main goal, to make them feel safe,” said Flores. “When they’re young we need to reel them in, to show them we’re genuine and that we care about them. You can have the best lesson plan in the world, but if a child doesn’t think you care then they won’t listen to you. They definitely know whether or not you’re being genuine.”
Her pupils will have opportunities to work with a single partner and in small groups, do simple math and dab in social studies where they learn about their place in the school family and society.
The children also have 20-30 minutes of daily recess, participate in daily physical education classes lasting 25-35 minutes and take naps the first half of the year before daytime rest is phased out. Finally, the curriculum puts needed emphasis on plenty of movement, which is important for small bodies bursting with energy.
“Movement is incorporated throughout the day, and we end each day with music and movement to really get their giggles out,” Flores said.
To ensure pre-K teachers have the skills they need to adequately engage their pupils, they are coached and taught specific strategies, particularly on how best to engage the kids and ensure effective classroom management.
Olga Sosa, one of the district’s pre-K instructional coaches at PISD, said she and her team provide year-round training for teachers, ensuring they understand the state standards expected for 4-year-old students, and offer in-classroom support if needed.
“We make sure they know how to work with children in small groups, how to engage wtih them in shared reading,” Sosa said. “We will observe the teachers, model best practices and even go into the classroom and co-teach with them (if need be).”
Flores said having such support, not only from Sosa and her team and a full-time paraprofessional assigned to each teacher is important to the program’s success.
“Pasadena gives us great support, allowing me to really be myself with my students. That’s the part I love most, that I can be silly with the kids,” she said.
‘Hopping, jumping, throwing, catching’
Terry, the early childhood coordinator, explained how pre-K teachers structure their academic lessons to make them fun.“We offer lots of game-like, hands-on activities that help to develop gross-motor abilities. We get kids hopping, jumping, throwing and catching,” she said.
Thhe skills the kids learn are basic — like learning that text moves from left to right — but essential, Terry and her team said.
The district’s child-to-teacher ratio at 11 to 1, or 22 to 2, fits what is considered “high-quality pre-K in the state of Texas,” Terry said.
She said she is happy with how the state has provided funding to ensure more kids are able to take advantage.
“Pre-K gives kids such a jump start,” she said. “In our classes, we want them to be able to count to 30, to recognize numbers and to see themselves as readers. It’s happening in our classes.”