It’s free childcare. So why aren’t more children in pre-K?

Pre-K enrollment is one of the hot button issues in education today. An early start can make a huge difference in educational achievement for children, whether that is reading at home with parents or organized education through Head Start or public pre-K programs. And best of all, early education programs are often free. So why aren’t more children enrolled in them?
There are a variety of issues that may explain low pre-K enrollment in Dallas. The first issue is knowledge— many parents are unaware that public pre-K programs exist, and that they are free.
The second issue is buy-in. Many parents simply don’t understand what the value of pre-K is, and why they should make it a priority for their child. This is especially prevalent in Texas, where even kindergarten isn’t required; first grade is the first required grade in the state. This leaves many parents confused as to the advantages of a pre-K education. Studies have shown clear differences between students who went through pre-K and students who did not, and students who had pre-K had a distinct academic advantage as they continued on in school. Valuable as these studies may be, they typically are utilized by the professional education world, rather than by parents.
Finally, access can also be an issue— spots for eligible pre-K students aren’t necessarily available in the exact area or school where they are needed. There typically are not as many pre-K spots offered at a school as there are kindergarten and first-grade spots, and some schools have more pre-K spaces than others. This can be challenging for parents who already have children enrolled in other grades- since pre-K does not include busing, the parent would have to drive to two different schools, sometimes in entirely different neighborhoods. If a parent does not understand the value of pre-K this can seem too challenging, and even parents who may be planning for pre-K might not have the resources to manage two separate drop-offs.
So how can we, as non-parents and perhaps even non-community members, impact pre-K enrollment? Education, education, education. Parental education is key in terms of informing parents that pre-K is an option, that it is free, and that it is valuable. This spring and summer a dedicated group of people in the South Oak Cliff community went door-to-door, knocking and distributing fliers and answering questions about pre-K. At the back to school fairs in the fall, which tend to focus on older students, pre-K fliers will be distributed. Community nonprofits and businesses have posted pre-K fliers, and pre-K enrollment in South Oak Cliff is increasing. Parental education will remain key for years into the future. It’s a sustaining loop- parents tell other parents about programs they find valuable, so getting in the door now and knocking on as many as possible is worth the time and effort.
Longer term, matching spots to students will be important. Whether that means busing pre-K students to different schools until a spot opens up where their siblings attend or hiring more teachers, expanding schools and/ or utilizing portables to add classes in neighborhoods with high need, the district will need to evaluate those options as they move forward. Making a difference in DISD student achievement requires many focuses on all grades. Long-term, though, success will be determined by our proactive approach to educating students right the first time around, rather than by intervening after students have fallen behind. Pre-K is a huge part of that equation.
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Ellen Miller

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