Chairs and tables seem impossibly close to the floor. Shelves are filled with books, toys and lots of bright colors.
Groups of children play at different stations. An aide helps a couple of girls use handprints to decorate valentines, while DeLeon helps several students don aprons for a water-based activity. It’s a scene that’s repeated daily not only at Panda Path but at SBISD’s other preK centers.
But DeLeon’s classroom is not like the others in one fundamental way – her 18 students this afternoon are half of SBISD’s first class of 3-year-olds, part of an SBISD pilot project that puts the younger students in a structured setting to help launch them on their academic careers and future successes.
The first-year teacher couldn’t be happier.
“This is what I love,” she said, looking around her classroom. “I’ve found my dream job.”
The “Pre-3” program launched on Jan. 4 – the first day back from winter break – after being conceived, planned and executed over the fall semester.
Responding to weak enrollment in the 4-year-old program – the traditional starting point for preK – Panda Path Director Sara Hannes and others first went to work trying to round up 4-year-olds for the program, among other methods going door-to-door to physically look for the children.
Panda Path serves primarily the apartment “super block” along Pitner Road between Hollister and Hempstead Highway, where some 6,000 people live in 1,700 or so apartment units. Occupancy rates were strong – 90 percent or better – with no crime waves or other outside disruptions.
But the students weren’t there, puzzling administrators. Executive Director Ricardo Barnes and Laura Abrams of the Spring Branch Family Development Center, which houses Panda Path, found some research suggesting a dip in the birth rate starting in 2011 – a national trend, Barnes said, but one that appears to be stronger among immigrant women and one that he expects will continue.
“There are macro reasons,” Abrams said, “why enrollment is down.”
In SBISD anyway, that’s opened the door for 3-year-olds.
“We’d never had room for both 3- and 4-year-olds,” said Hannes. “Now we do. We turned a negative into a positive.”
The differences in a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old program are subtle but very real, Hannes said. The younger students generally don’t come from a day-care environment and considerable time is spent on “soft skills,” such as sharing with strangers, learning how to ask for things, and routines and procedures they’ll encounter in a classroom.
Using language appropriately is also a focus in the 3-year-old program, Hannes said. Children come from an environment where language is largely “directive” – come here, sit down, listen – and have to learn to hear and use language instructively.
Administrators have something of an advantage finding students through Family U, a program run by the Spring Branch Family Development Center for parents of children ages 0-3, where they learn to more effectively parent. Many of the 3-year-olds attend Family U in the mornings with parents then the afternoon class at Panda Path.
With 35 students now enrolled in the 3-year-old program – 17 in the morning; 18 in the afternoon – and a waiting list of 34, chances are good that a new class will be formed, and soon. And with some 70 students enrolled in the 3-year-old program and around 100 in the 4-year-old program, Panda Path will have 170 students, pushing its all-time peak enrollment of 174 students.
The “Pre-3s” may be piloting at Panda Path but the program might expand to SBISD’s other preK centers this fall, said Sheree Cantrell, SBISD’s Director of Early Childhood.
“Demographic projections show that (the trend) will continue,” said Cantrell.
Barnes said that SBISD has very innovative in its approach to preK.
“The district was visionary and innovative to capture these students,” he said, “and to do it mid-year, and then expand mid-year. It really speaks well to Spring Branch (ISD).”
SBISD has long operated full-day preK for its 4-year-olds while being reimbursed by the state only for half-day. Cantrell said that the state says districts “must” provide programs for 4-year-olds but “may” provide for 3-year-olds.
The state reimburses for the 3-year-old program, Cantrell said, because it’s a half-day program.
Research consistently shows that early exposure to language increases a child’s ability to read on grade level, which leads to greater academic and post-secondary success. SBISD’s T-2-4 goal is that students complete a technical certificate, military training or a two- or four-year degree.
Cantrell and Hannes wrote the curriculum for the 3-year-old program and helped coordinate support from a number of SBISD departments to make the program ready when students returned to school on Jan. 4, after winter break.
“We met with everybody,” said Cantrell. “This is something that (the district) has always wanted to do … now we can get these kids in here and start closing gaps.”
She said getting 3-year-olds into a structured program will speed up identification of students who need interventions and services such as speech or hearing. “It gives the threes an early start,” Cantrell said.
Hannes especially praised the Panda Path staff for going above and beyond during the planning and opening of the 3-year-old program – from teacher aides volunteering to come in early to receive students to the extra enrollment push to adjusting lunch times slightly to get the required minutes in a school day.
“It’s getting the right people on the bus,” she said. “(Staff was) willing to come in early or stay late … to do what needs to be done.”
Barnes puts it another way.
“Talk about customized supports,” he said, referring to one of the four pillars of SBISD’s strategic plan, The Learner’s Journey. “The school community knew what could be done to make this seamless … everyone here sees what happens when you get behind something and work towards a goal.”
Customized Supports is defined in The Learner’s Journey as “the people, places, partners, programs and processes that provide students, families and staff with personalized resources.”
A vital piece of Spring Branch Family Development Center’s services continuum, Panda Path – and Family U – help build community for the families on Pitner Road.
“The perception is that everyone in the (Pitner) apartments are all friends – but they’re not, and they find each other here,” said Barnes. “Give people some space and purpose, and (community) starts building.”
By Rusty Graham