Pre-K 4 SA‘s South Education Center is a model of high quality early childhood education, but its impact goes far beyond the 500 students served at the center. I recently toured the campus to meet the leaders and learn more about the program.
The South Education Center opened in 2013 as part of an effort by the City of San Antonio to improve educational attainment and workforce development. In 2012, voters approved a 0.125 percent sales tax increase to fund the program. Pre-K 4 SA is led by CEO Sarah Baray, who joined in 2016, and a board of directors. Pre-K 4 SA has partnerships with eight local school districts to serve eligible four-year-olds. Eighty percent of the enrolled students are eligible to attend tuition-free; the other 20 percent pay tuition on a sliding scale.
Beyond the students who attend school at the four centers, Pre-K 4 SA also provides professional development for educators, competitive grants to support other high-quality early childhood education programs, and cultivates the growth of parents whose children attend Pre-K 4 SA. Those are good topics for future posts, but this post will focus on my observations at the South Education Center, which is located in southeast San Antonio, near Brooks.
Baray and South Education Center Director Belinda Gonzalez gave me a tour of the center’s classrooms, common areas, and administrative spaces. The first place on the tour was the Parent Café, a living room space for parents to gather, meet with parent liaisons, and advance their own goals, like earning a GED. On the day of my visit—the last Wednesday of the month—the room was set up for a Parents as Partners meeting for over 100 visitors.
Gonzalez swiped an access card and led us into the hallway. Each classroom has an observation window so visitors can watch and learn. The leaders at Pre-K 4 SA have made many choices, such as selecting HighScope curriculum, with a goal of presenting research-based, high quality early childhood education practices to educators in San Antonio and beyond.
Many of us are used to seeing primary colors and plastic surfaces in settings for young children. At Pre-K 4 SA, however, the decor and objects have soft, neutral colors and natural materials. A member of my discussion group reported that her child’s teacher “made the classroom more like home.”
The center opens at 7:15 a.m. for early drop-off. The school day starts at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 3:00 p.m. Full day pre-K is rare in San Antonio: many local school districts only offer half-day pre-K because that’s what state funding covers. Pre-K 4 SA also offers extended care from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Transportation is available through a depot system that meets at local libraries, community centers, etc. Families are amazed by the buses’ built-in carseats.
The classrooms are designed with the most interesting features—artwork, blocks, etc.—set low for children to reach easily. From an adult perspective, it feels like all the good stuff is set at fingertip height or lower. The decor is localized to San Antonio: the walls have murals of local landmarks and photos of city leaders, and the materials in the learning centers include maps and menus from local businesses and attractions.
Classroom time is divided into different activities, including morning meetings, small group, large group, and plan-do-review time. The morning meeting time helps build executive function skills and incorporates planning, numbers, vocabulary, and dealing with the unexpected—such as rainy weather.
In small group time, a lead teacher might work with half of the class on literacy or math concepts. During my visit, I observed a teacher reading a story out loud and directing students in acting out the story. In another part of the classroom, an assistant teacher supervised students’ individual work.
During large group time, the students develop their gross motor skills and practice sequencing. Activities include yoga, dance classes with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and building with big blue blocks.
“Plan, do, review” is a process that helps children act independently and develop resilience. Children can choose an activity from centers around the room. Many centers are supplied with writing materials and things to read. Early in the school year many items have picture labels, but word labels will be introduced over time.
Every room has a cozy corner, a place where a distressed student can practice mindfulness and re-set their emotions.
The classrooms do not have behavior charts, color charts, clip charts, or other conventional tools for managing behavior. Instead, students are taught techniques for resolving conflicts. During transitions between classes, the students walked in a line, but they also chatted, fidgeted, and looked around.
We visited one of two bilingual classrooms. These students speak Spanish at home, and in the classroom they learn in Spanish 90 percent of the time. Over time, the students will transition to speaking English more of the time.
My visit happened on a rainy day, but we still toured the garden, one of several outdoor play areas. Volunteers, including many parents and grandparents, helped build the raised garden beds.
Growing vegetables helps the students learn about healthy eating. Also, families make visits to produce markets and parks as part of the teacher-led City Explorations program.
The students have fun using hoes to chop up the waste in the compost pile. The rain also creates mud puddles for them to jump in. When it’s not raining, the students’ outdoor games also include dress up and imaginative play, such as pretending to camp.
During my visit to the Pre-K 4 SA South Education Center, I was impressed with the commitment to high quality early childhood education and the efforts to propagate those ideas in the San Antonio education community. I am looking forward to sharing more information about Pre-K 4 SA in future posts, including tips on how to visit and enroll, as well as data on Pre-K 4 SA’s impact on education in San Antonio.
- “How Julián Castro Bet on 4-Year-Olds to Transform San Antonio,” Erick Trickey, Politico, August 17, 2017
- “When the Whole Family Goes to Pre-K”, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, Atlantic, March 7, 2016
- Earlier posts about Pre-K 4 SA on San Antonio Charter Moms
- Rivard Report coverage of Pre-K 4 SA