Preschool in a Post-Pandemic World

We are proud to share this guest post by Mary Field, a board member at the International School of San Antonio, sharing her observations about the variety of preschools in San Antonio and discussing the research about the benefits of early childhood education.

At the LeafSpring School, north of 1604, there is an open area near large windows where a child was having a one-on-one session with a speech therapist while I toured the center. In the classroom for three year olds, there were posters on the wall showing some basic baby sign language. Speech delays have become more common in their preschoolers, echoing national data. At the LeafSpring school, and nearly all the other programs that I visited for this article, directors and staff repeatedly cited developmental concerns for the “pandemic babies,” including speech delays.

Children who were born at the beginning of the pandemic or just prior are now turning three and entering preschool. Speech delays, toilet training issues, even problems wearing shoes are all on the rise according to the directors I spoke to. For more detail on some of these issues, I reached out to Suzi Schwartz who has been working with parents for 25 years, and working as a potty-training consultant for five years. According to her, potty-training problems that used to be relatively unheard of, like withholding urine, have now become common post-pandemic. When asked why this is happening, she said “children absorb anxiety.” There has been so much stress and anxiety, particularly for parents of young children over the past three years that it has made it harder for kids to be potty-trained, in her experience.

What We Know Vs What We Do

Preschool programs did not need these additional secuelas of the pandemic added to their brief. Preschool already programs do everything from teaching children how to zip up their jackets, to providing meals and snacks, to meeting an ever-moving target of “school readiness” for the children enrolled in their programs. This is especially true of publicly-funded programs like Head Start. It was not always like this. Michael Gramling, author of “The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education: What We Know Vs What We Do,” says that we “traded what was most important in early childhood development for what is easily measured.” During our phone interview, he explained that starting in the 1990s, there was increased accountability pressure on Head Start programs to show their value. In the 1960s Head Start had promised to eradicate poverty, but by the 1990s, poverty had not disappeared. Head Start needed to justify itself to legislators. Pre-reading skills, math, vocabulary and other “school readiness” skills are much easier to measure for reports sent to the people who write the checks. Thus, they became the new target for these programs, instead of the more-difficult-to-quantify brain development, which rightfully should be the goal of early childhood education, according to Gramling.

One of San Antonio’s Head Start programs is located on a quiet street near Woodlawn Lake. At the Pauline Nelson Early Childhood Education Center, about 15 percent of their students live in homeless shelters. As she showed me around, Principal Marisa Mendez mentioned that their families get a lot of support from Nelson, even including a helping them set goals for getting out of homelessness. “We can’t save everyone,” she told me, “but we can serve everyone.” During our conversation, Principal Mendez described the tension between school the school readiness that the district schools want, and what we know is best in early childhood education: they are not going to all be able to line up and walk quietly down the hall, and we shouldn’t expect them to in any case. 

At the University Presbyterian Children’s Center (UPCC), adjacent to Trinity University in Monte Vista, director Cindi Catlin-Gaskins spoke to me as we looked out on the two large outdoor play areas about their nature-based program. The UPCC has two playgrounds, an outdoor classroom and no large colorful play structures like the kind that you typically see in preschools and daycares. In the larger playgrounds there is a mud kitchen. “Parents know that their kids may get messy and muddy,” Catlin-Gaskins explained. In both the outdoor spaces and inside the classrooms, children moved freely through their spaces, playing together, making crafts, and interacting with the teachers who moved through the space with them. Observing the toddler playground, Catlin-Gaskins pointed out with the confidence of someone who has worked with children for 40 years that the little ones always stick close to their teachers during outdoor play. Programs like the one at UPCC have clearly gotten the memo about the importance of play-based learning. This is not a surprise to people like Michael Gramling, who said play-based learning is “more in upscale programs.”*  

Also in Monte Vista is San Antonio Academy. Initially, I visited San Antonio Academy in order to learn about the intersection of early childhood and single-sex education (the Academy serves boys from Pre-K to 8th grade.) What I found was a unique approach to lunchtime. Lunch tables have boys from each grade present, preschoolers and boys from odd numbered grades and kindergarteners and boys from even numbered grades. The oldest boy at the table is in charge of serving the entrée and all boys are expected to help. All of the boys also have clean up responsibilities. Mixed-age play, often rare in early childhood programs or elementary schools (with the exception of Montessori), has great benefits for children of all ages. In “The Importance of Being Little,” early childhood expert Erika Christakis writes: “One of the great advantages of a mixed-age group is that it’s a kind of self-contained system . . . . Older kids like to play with younger children because they can control them. Younger children like to be controlled. No one admits this, but it’s true. When the older kids get too mean or too rough or don’t respect the feelings of the younger children, the little ones rattle their chains: they go on strike, they break things, they tattle. So the system recalibrates itself naturally in most cases, in humans as in apes.” Anyone who has tried to sit through a meal with a preschooler either inhaling their macaroni in five minutes of flinging blueberries around for an hour can recognize what a service the older boys at San Antonio Academy are doing by socializing the little kids at lunchtime.

Still Searching for the Silver Bullet

Since the beginning, preschool programs have done more for children than just teach them finger plays and how to sit in a circle. They have included meals, medical checkups, and home visits to help families plan stimulating activities to do at home. Since the mid-90s, many states have established universal public pre-K. Several longitudinal studies, like the Abecedarian Project and the Perry Preschool Project (source of the Heckman curve) show long-term benefits to children who attend early childhood programs. Yet, the push for more free preschool often meets resistance, partially because large studies have yet to definitively show long-lasting benefits to these programs. Some, like this 2022 paper on a Tennessee public pre-K program, show negative effects in student outcomes.

On a smaller scale however, clearly children benefit greatly from high-quality preschool. Cristina Medrano founded the Mustard Seed Academy to help prepare children for the dual-language program at Bonham Academy, just down the street. The teachers at Bonham Academy, a Spanish dual-language school in SAISD, “know who the Mustard Seeders are,” Medrano told me, because their Spanish is so good. Children can start the program at Mustard Seed at 14 months so children entering kindergarten may have already had almost four years of Spanish immersion. According to Medrano, her preschoolers are reading and writing Spanish by the time they leave the program.

Parents Need Preschool, Too

Perhaps a discussion of what preschool can and cannot promise for children seems a little academic. After all, parents need preschool as a childcare option so that they can go to work. For most of the past ten years, the majority of three and four year olds attended preschool. Enrollment in preschool programs was steady at 52 to 55 percent for three and four year olds from 2010 to 2019 and then dropped to 40 percent in 2020. There is a however, a supply gap for childcare so many more children could be enrolled in some sort of program if one existed for them. Most children attend some kind of preschool, more children probably would if more programs (especially public) were available to them. And yet we still don’t have the more of these large-scale programs precisely because the data don’t show that they are a silver bullet.

After touring Nelson Early Childhood Education Center, University Presbyterian Children’s Center, San Antonio Academy, LeafSpring, and Mustard Seed Academy I sat on the couch and told my husband my honest assessment of these preschools: there wasn’t a single program that I didn’t like. They were all impressive in different ways. It is hard to understand why the research on large-scale early childhood education is such a mixed bag when observing such a hard-working and dedicated group of people. It invites the question, “What if quality early childhood education just doesn’t scale?”

Institutions like the National Institute for Early Education Research create quality standards  and benchmarks used to evaluate programs. States like Texas create nearly 300 page documents of minimum standards that all programs need to follow in order to be licensed. Initiatives like these ensure a baseline level of quality. And yet, people like Marisa Mendez and Cindi Catlin-Gaskins can’t be photocopied and distributed across the country. Lunchtime at San Antonio Academy allows valuable mixed-aged socializing, but not all early childhood programs are part of larger schools with big kids on the same campus. Parents love Spanish immersion programs like Mustard Seed, but if the country is missing 100,000 childcare workers already, there surely aren’t enough Spanish-speaking preschool teachers to meet the demand.

As we examine the consequences of keeping young children at home during the pandemic, and analyze the good news and bad news about universal preschool programs, San Antonio parents will do well to remember that on an individual level, they have great choices. Parents who qualify for Head Start can apply online. San Antonio Academy, UPCC, and Mustard Seed Academy are all in-demand boutique programs with waitlists, but they are still there and thriving after the COVID pandemic throttled the industry. For parents looking for preschools, the best approach is make a short list of programs you are interested in and go visit. The best programs have an experience and knowledgeable staff who focus on their relationships and conversations with children.

* Tuition at UPCC for full-time preschoolers is $1400/month. Child Care Subsidy (CCS) is also accepted.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Mary Field speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on April 13, 2023 at 1:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Mary Field is a member of the board at the International School of San Antonio. She has taught Mandarin Chinese in San Antonio since 2015.

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