To accommodate this growth, the district nearly doubled its pre-K staff by hiring at least 43 pre-K teachers and 44 pre-K paraprofessionals, or teacher assistants, for the 2019-20 school year, per district data.
These changes stem from a state mandate. The Texas Legislature passed a school finance reform bill, House Bill 3, during the 86th legislative session, and it was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 11. HB 3 became effective Sept. 1, giving school districts three months to implement full-day pre-K.
KISD was able to implement the change by the first day of instruction, Aug. 14, KISD Superintendent Ken Gregorski said.
To achieve this, individuals at the district level convened with campus and elementary principals over the summer, he added. Together, they evaluated the need for additional classroom space and the budget.
“I think it was wise of Katy ISD to implement the program [early] because the district has a large and diverse student population,” said Jennifer Wrzyszczynski, a former elementary and special education who lives in the Katy area. “Implementing the program before being required to do so allows the district to work out the details.”
The general requirements to enroll in pre-K—set by the Texas Legislature and aimed to target students more likely to fail in school—have not changed, only the length of the school day.
About 1,600 students were enrolled in the district’s pre-K program across 29 campuses in the 2018-19 school year, KISD Deputy Superintendent Leslie Haack said at the July 29 school board meeting.
Haack predicted the district to have about 1,800 pre-K students across 37 campuses for the 2019-20 school year, and as of Oct. 28, nearly 2,000 preschoolers were enrolled.
Enrollment in a pre-K program is not required for eligible 4-year-old students, but attendance is compulsory once a child is enrolled, per the Texas Education Agency website, and parents are responsible for transporting their child to and from campus.
Districts can apply to be exempted from complying with HB 3, according to the TEA website. If approved, a three-year grace period will be granted to schools before the state mandates the availability of full-day pre-K programs.
Like KISD, Fort Bend ISD managed to implement the change by Aug. 14, said Amanda Bubela, assistant director of media and external relations at FBISD.
Houston ISD began offering full-day pre-K in 2006 but will expand to more campuses across the district, said Mechiel Rozas, director of early childhood education for HISD.
Meanwhile officials in Cy-Fair, Humble and New Caney ISDs said they are in the initial phases and discussing how to best implement full-day pre-K without straining the district.
Districts are facing challenges when planning for a successful implementation of full-day pre-K, said Pam Wells, the Region 4 Education Service Center executive director. These challenges include classroom capacity, funding more instructional materials and bus transportation services, teacher recruitment and scheduling.
“All things considered, the rollout has gone very well,” KISD Chief Human Resources Officer Brian Schuss said. “Acclimating 4-year-olds to a full day of instruction poses some unique challenges. Fortunately, we have highly skilled prekindergarten teachers who understand the value of full-day instruction, and they have met the challenges handily.”
The Texas Legislature has made efforts to fund early childhood programs in the state in the last ten years, but HB 3 was the result of state leaders becoming more aware of the positive return on investment in a good early education, Wells said.
“During the last few legislative sessions, business leaders in the Greater Houston Partnership identified high-quality, full-day pre-K for eligible students as a legislative priority because research suggests full-day pre-K could increase third-grade literacy, a predictor of future student success,” Wells said. “These business leaders believe improving student outcomes will enhance the region’s quality of life and economic outcomes as well.”
The state allocated about $780 million over the biennium in increased funding for an early education allotment, according to statewide public policy organization Center for Public Policy Priorities. School districts must spend their share of this allotment on grades pre-K through third grade, such as literacy programs or full-day pre-K, KISD Chief Financial Officer Chrisopher J. Smith, said. The allotment is divvied out among Texas districts based on enrollment numbers, student demographics and attendance.
To set up full-day pre-K for the start of the school year, KISD spent about $4.5 million for teacher and classroom aide positions and about $1.2 million in non-payroll costs to supply the pre-K classrooms with furniture and instructional materials, per district data.
KISD estimates it will receive about $8.6 million from the early education allotment, though the number is subject to change based on actual 2019-20 enrollment numbers and demographics, Smith said. The district will spend its early education allotment and any additional funds to implement full-day pre-K successfully, Smith said.
“We spend what the district feels needs to be spent on those students,” Smith said. “We have expenses whether they have [an allotment] or not. We’re going to spend that money because that’s what it takes to educate these kids.”
Overall, the district did gain additional funding from HB 3, and the district was also able to use some 2018-19 budget funds to help offset the set-up costs for the full-day pre-K, he said.
“Once House Bill 3 said that we needed to offer full-day pre-K, then our district ... found a way to make a work,” Smith said. “That’s the best decision for students.”
Set up for success
Research shows early childhood education can give children a lifelong advantage, but not solely due to the academic skills learned in the classroom.
A 2017 TEA study that followed pre-K students over a 15-year period found children who attended pre-K classes were 16% more likely to demonstrate skills showing kindergarten readiness.
It also found attending pre-K also is associated with a lower likelihood of dropping out of school and a higher likelihood of enrolling in college.
“If families are able to take advantage of the full-day program, then I think it helps them economically by being able to be reliable employees,” Wrzyszczynski said. “If the families have the opportunity to gain more income, they will be able to provide additional opportunities for their children.”
Wrzyszczynski taught in elementary schools in Maryland, Florida and Georgia before relocating to the Katy area. She said her three children have been educated by the KISD system and agrees many families move to Katy for the quality of the schools and programs.
“It can be very beneficial to students who do not have access to a conducive learning environment for a variety of reasons,” Wrzyszczynski said. “There are many private preschools and day care centers particularly in the Katy and Houston area. However, they can be cost-prohibitive for some families.”
Wells said there are options in the Greater Houston area for parents whose children are not eligible for state-funded public pre-K, including child care centers, faith-based pre-K programs and home-based child care, but there are not enough affordable, high-quality options to meet the needs.
“It is much more challenging and expensive to provide remediation for children. This is especially true for children in poverty who may not have had the benefits of early literacy development,” Wells said. “As a lifelong educator, I am convinced that if we increase participation in high-quality pre-K programs, we will see an increase in student performance.”
Jen Para and Danica Smithwick contributed to this report.