Getting to the starting line
I refer to my district, Wichita Falls ISD, as an “urban-rural district.” We have more than 14,000 students who are collectively about as diverse as the state of Texas: about 45% white, 38% Hispanic, and about 12% African-American. The free and reduced lunch rate varies from about 35% at some of our schools to more than 90% at several. Like most urban districts, our city is a regional hub for social services, medical services, and retail for communities within about 100 miles. Like a rural district, however, Wichita Falls is not on the way to or from anywhere. You have to want to come here, and so we struggle to attract teachers.
Our goal, then, is not just to educate children, but to make this a community where families want to live. But with a stagnant population, the only way to ensure that our community will grow and thrive is to “grow our own,” so that those who live here are able to participate fully in our economy and everything that we have to offer families. That, in turn, means that we have to prepare each student for kindergarten so they have a solid foundation for the education that follows. Here’s how we do it.
The need for early learning really can’t be overstated. I always say, “We’ve got to get them to the same starting line,” because if every one of our students is at that line by the time they start school, they tend to do pretty well.
Here’s what we find on day one: some students walk in ready to learn. These students have had rich early childhood education opportunities. Others were not as fortunate and they need more help. Some are just learning English for the first time. We work to catch them up as best we can, but once that gap opens it’s extremely difficult to close again, especially with the constraints of the 180-day school year in Texas.
In Wichita Falls, we’ve worked to keep that gap from opening by funding full-day PreK for qualifying students for about 20 years. Fortunately, the state legislature just allocated funds for early education, so now we have nearly enough funding from the state to cover all qualifying students, which includes English language learners, military dependents, homeless students, economically disadvantaged students, and migrants. For us, that’s about 800 students each year who are now funded through the state instead of district coffers.
Parents as Teachers
Before our students even get to PreK, we offer them a state-recognized, blue-ribbon “parents as teachers” program that serves about 120 families each year. As part of this grant-funded program, certified teachers go into the homes of students who are younger than four years old, usually for about 18 months. Weekly or bi-weekly, these teachers work with parents to get them aligned with social services if they need them and to teach them why it’s important to read to their children.
The Right Partnerships
We also run our own Head Start program, which begins at three years old for qualifying students and serves about 500 children each year. If you walked into one of our Head Start classrooms, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from one of our standard PreK classes. They use the same curriculum, taught by teachers with the same certification, and have the same expectations of students.
We still have about 100-150 students who, for one reason or another, aren’t served by any of the above programs. There may be a transportation issue, or their parents may have work schedules that interfere or any number of other challenges.
For those students, we use the Waterford UPSTART program. The nonprofit Waterford.org provides families a Chromebook and internet access at no cost so their children can access the organization’s personalized online early learning curriculum. We ask them to spend 20 minutes a day, five days a week during the entire year before kindergarten, working on early literacy skills, letter recognition, number recognition, color recognition, and more.
Two years ago, our director of early learning, Travis Armstrong, said, “It was so awesome to finish PreKRoundup because not a single student that wanted PreK services was turned away.” That was the first year that we were able to say that nearly all of our students either had some sort of early learning service or that their parents felt they had it under control themselves.
Our work is paying off: This year, for the first time in the last six, we are now above the state average in kindergarten readiness. And our district, which accounts for about 50% of our region, is above our region’s average. There’s always more work to be done, but with a focus on young children, parents, and community, we believe we’re on the right path.
As we look to next year, we’re always seeking additional funding sources within Wichita Falls. It’s always encouraging to have a local family foundation share our commitment to the future of our community.
Michael Kuhrt is the superintendent of schools at Wichita Falls Independent School District, which partners with Head Start and Waterford.org to deliver early learning services. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Kuhrteous.
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