ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) -- Sitting across from her daughter at a kid-sized table, Elizabeth Guilbeau looked for the right piece to fill in a Disney princess puzzle the two were working on.
"Whose hand is this?" she asked her 4-year-old, Narrah, both of them sitting in a mostly empty room at Global Kids Preschool waiting for her classmates to show up.
This is Narrah's first month in pre-K. "Next year's kindergarten," Guilbeau said.
She wants to start her daughter on a path to success in school and believes this is the way to do it, with the hope that it'll help her figure out her daughter's personality in a setting other than home life. That was a big advantage, she found, of putting her now-first-grader through pre-K in Austin.
"We thought she was really outgoing, and then when we put her in school we found out she's actually really shy in school settings," Guilbeau said. "So that was something we got to work on a lot with her before kindergarten started."
It's not just the social aspect of pre-K that benefits students, research shows. If school success is a puzzle, pre-K is like a corner piece, serving as the foundation to build on.
The education data group E3 Alliance found that overall, kids are far more likely to be ready for kindergarten if they're enrolled in a pre-K program. The difference is greatest for low-income students, who are nearly three times as likely to be ready if they attend pre-K.
What's more, the group's research shows kindergarten readiness is the strongest predictor of passing the 3rd-grade STAAR test.
Sam Soto, principal of Bluebonnet Elementary School in Round Rock, sees the impact on children in a number of ways.
"We focus on the whole aspect of the child," he said, "not only their academic but ... their social and emotional development."
Test scores and graduation rates increase as pre-K enrollment does, he said, and expansion of publicly-funded programs through school districts levels the playing field for lower-income students.
"Our students have more opportunities to succeed as they get older in life," Soto said.
This year, 21 of Round Rock ISD's 34 elementary schools offer either full- or part-time pre-K. Public programs like those are far more popular than private ones, an E3 Alliance spokesperson said, but parents like Guilbeau say the important thing is getting kids in some kind of program.
Back at Global Kids Preschool, Narrah explained the exchange rate between little plastic dinosaurs, farm animals, and dogs as she and her mom traded the figurines back and forth. One of Narrah's cows cost Guilbeau five dinosaurs, but a goat was far cheaper, setting her back just one.
The day for the 4-year-old would include story time, a checkup on the class hamster, outside playtime, and other activities like those you'd find in a kindergarten classroom.
"I'm really hoping she gains a lot of confidence in school," Guilbeau said before she left, "and just feels excited about school for the rest of her life."
She hopes pre-K is that puzzle piece for her daughter that starts bringing the fuller picture of success into focus. "Anything to get her started on a right foot is what we're looking for."
If you're looking for help getting your child ready for Kindergarten, the E3 Alliance has a list of Frequently Asked Questions and a School Readiness Guide for Parents.
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