PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — During the 2019-20 school year, Texas Education Agency data reported Pflugerville ISD had 970 students enrolled in the district’s Pre-Kindergarten program. Following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, that number dropped 26.7%, with a reported 711 Pre-K students enrolled in the 2020-21 school year.
Thursday marked not only the start of the 2020-21 academic year, but a new chapter in the district’s Pre-K program and its efforts to boost enrollment.
PfISD formally launched its Pre-K 3 pilot program on Thursday, a half-day schooling initiative for three year-olds. While three year-old Pre-K programs are not required by the TEA, district administrators pointed to the importance of educational and social learning in young children as inspiration for the program.
“One of the biggest things that we know about early childhood is that 90% of our brain development occurs within the first five years of you know, the life — this early stage in life,” said Charlotte Zemo, PfISD’s Pre-K coordinator. “And so that really helps with our, with children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.”
PfISD’s Pre-K 3 initiative is designed with half-day classes in both the morning and afternoon, with either breakfast or lunch served before students engage in various educational activities. She said the program is an opportunity to help students dip their toes into future school day structures, while also learning new social, emotional and education skills.
The pilot program is operating on four PfISD elementary campuses, she said, with bilingual Spanish Pre-K 3 programs offered at Riojas Elementary and Highland Park Elementary, as well as at Northwest Elementary and Windermere Elementary. The locations are strategic, Zemo said, and allow for further inter-district growth.
“We particularly did this within the four feeder patterns of our district so that we can strategically serve several communities within those four campuses,” she said.
PfISD launched a social media campaign this past spring to help promote and bolster enrollment in Pre-K courses after seeing significant decreases during the pandemic. Currently, there are approximately 800 Pre-K students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year, Zemo said, marking a 12.5% increase from the 2020-21 academic year.
The downward trend in Pre-K enrollment is not unique to PfISD. E3 Alliance, an educational collaborative based in Austin, reported a 29% decrease in Pre-K enrollment between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years in Central Texas ISDs.
As students return to the classroom, now is a crucial time to evaluate where students are at and how to increase their preparedness for coming grade levels, said Laura Koenig, E3 Alliance’s director of school readiness and senior director of community solutions.
“Pre-K is just an excellent, rich environment for children to be able to learn and grow and get ready for school,” Koenig said. “Pre-K helps kids get used to being with other kids, learn new languages, develop and learn about print-rich materials that can be in the classroom, and it’s a great way to build community. And all of this ties into the fact that we know that so much of brain development really happens before age five.”
The COVID-19 impact on student learning
Not only did the coronavirus pandemic result in decreased Pre-K enrollment, but it also altered learning environments for students and had impacts on student comprehension.
“COVID has been a whole new ballgame and in the course of educational trends, because what we saw was a lot of differences in how education service models were being delivered,” she said. “We went from a very classic model of kids going into classrooms and classrooms looking the same way to kids going into virtual classrooms, hybrid classrooms and in person classrooms that looked vastly different.”
When it comes to understanding just how wide-reaching these impacts are on Pre-K students, Koenig said kindergarten teachers will likely be the ones poised with evaluating students and bringing them closer to benchmark standards.
“We know that kindergarten teachers are going to have a lot of extra work to do to catch up and understand, okay, kids are not coming in with a known school background. So how do we create that?” Koenig said. “How do we understand where they are? I think this year is going to be a lot of understanding where the kids are, so that school districts can teach them and they are ready.”
Setting the stage for future growth
While COVID-19 did have substantial impacts on PfISD’s growth patterns, Zemo said initial Pre-K enrollment trends emerging from the 2021-22 school year look promising. For families on the fence of enrolling their children in a Pre-K 3 or traditional Pre-K program, Zemo said Pre-K enrollment runs year-round and is not limited to grading periods or the start of the academic year.
“As long as [prospective students] meet those requirements, they’re welcome to come to one of our campuses, and we are accepting added district students for Pre-K,” she said.
She added the district’s new Pre-K 3 program is an opportunity to maximize Pflugerville’s rapid growth and reimagine what early childhood education looks like for years to come.
“It really makes for a real, well-rounded enrichment program for them,” she said. “They’re learning through play, and I think that’s what’s the key about early childhood education.”