United Way grants $215,000 to AISD Pre-K students

AUSTIN (KXAN) — United Way for Greater Austin will announce on Thursday morning a $215,000 grant to help the Austin Independent School District expand pre-K education. This new effort will help nearly 500 3-year-olds in the Austin area. The goal is to get young, low-income students ready for school.

Currently, AISD serves 64 income-eligible children in a Pre-K 3 pilot program in two high-need elementary campuses in East Austin. AISD’s Pre-K 3 program currently provides half-day instruction to children who have not participated in formal early education. UWATX’s donation makes way for the opening of 15 additional AISD Pre-K 3 classrooms — four of which will provide full-day instruction — serving up to an additional 480 students.

“We have piloted the Pre-K 3 program this year with great success and are grateful to United Way for Greater Austin for this generous donation to expand this important program to more students,” said AISD Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz. “We work to give our students the best possible foundation, and it begins with early childhood education.”

Officials say research indicates a strong correlation between high-quality early education and overall school success. Children, many from areas struggling with economic hardship, enter kindergarten not school-ready and with developmental delays in specific skills sets, including communication, problem-solving and fine motor skills. Research has found that children who spend two years in an enriching preschool program are more likely to enter kindergarten developmentally prepared.

“It’s great to see a philanthropic leader like the United Way team up with AISD to provide more high-quality early childhood education in high-need schools,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “Making families aware that these pre-K programs are available will be a priority of my office.”

The UWATX grant is made possible by donations from Austinites Eric and Keri Stumberg, Sandy and Lisa Gottesman, and John Cullen. Donations from Sandy and Lisa Gottesman, and John Cullen were made in honor of Cullen’s wife, Sue Cullen, who passed away in 2010. The donations will be used for the purchase of classroom furniture, materials, curricula and assessment tools. The Texas Education Agency will also finance the ongoing operational expenses for the program.

“We are humbled that seasoned donors, such as the Stumbergs, Gottesmans and John Cullen, selected UWATX to be the recipient of their generous donations,” said Debbie Bresette, United Way for Greater Austin president. “It is a privilege to serve as a steward of their financial investment in this community, and we are confident that this expansion of AISD’s Pre-K 3 program will be realized for many years.”

AISD campuses were selected for the Pre-K 3 program based on criteria of underutilized classroom space, administrative willingness to participate and meet the developmental needs of three year olds, and community need such as a high number of students not enrolled in an early education program. The campuses chosen for the Pre-K 3 program include: Sims; Reilly; Galindo; Pecan Springs; Guerrero Thompson; Dawson; Jordan; Pleasant Hill; Boone; Allison; Cunningham; Overton; Oak Springs; and Zavala.

Registration for the 2015-2016 school year begins April 6. For more information, please call UWATX’s 211 Navigation Center, visit the AISD website or call 512-414-PreK.

Early education a top priority

At the very top of Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of priorities: Early education is No. 1. During his State of the State address, Abbott’s first emergency item dealt with pre-K education — something he said many Democrats were carrying. He said it’s important to make sure Texas students are performing at grade level at both reading and math by the third grade, and to do that, he says the budget gives additional funding to schools with high-quality  Pre-K programs.

“To begin the process of improving our schools and advancing our students, we must improve early education,” said Abbott. “That’s why I am declaring early education as my first emergency item as governor.”

More child advocates say pre-K is the first step in getting the best education. Because Abbott agrees, he has made pre-K funding a priority this legislative session. The House Committee on Public Education laid out and heard testimony in mid-March as part of Pre-K Day, where several bills were on the table.

“Pre-K is so much more than it used to be,” said Jacquie Porter, with Austin Independent School District.

She says the state pays for half-day pre-K for 92 percent of the district’s kids: low-income, military families, homeless, English-learning and foster families. Austin taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab for full-day. Porter says it’s worth it.

“It’s all about problem-solving skills,” she said, “It’s teaching them social-emotional development.”

If passed, several bills would reward districts for meeting higher standards.

“It’s about time that we’ve decided as a state that pre-K a priority,” said Porter.

More money is coming, the only question now is how much. Two major bills would each put more money into the pre-K system if districts meet those higher standards.

House Bill 4 would add $1,500 per student more for half day pre-K, totaling $118 million. House Bill 1100 would double the current amount per student, adding another $3,650 for full day pre-K, pumping $300 million tax dollars into pre-K.

Some child care activists say this upgraded pre-K program should not be optional and these bills don’t go far enough. Texans Care for Children says this is a step in the right direction but doesn’t match what lawmakers cut from Pre-K in 2011.

Fully funded pre-K for all children in the state may seem far-off, but it is already happening in Georgia. The program is funded by the state lottery and are offered through both private providers and local public schools. In the last school year, Georgia spent $312 million on the program for 84,000 students.

The Texas Education Agency says a full-day program in Texas would cost $4.6 billion, but it counts eligible 3- and 4-year-olds — bringing the total number of students to 777,000.

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