AUSTIN (KXAN) — Kindergartner Joaquin Trevino sits at his kitchen table dressed in his school-issued blue polo shirt, with his eyes glued to his laptop. His teacher, who is delivering a lesson virtually, asks the class a question.

His little sister, Nayeli, pops up from behind Joaquin’s chair with a gigantic smile and shouts out an answer. She’s only three years old, and is excited and proud that she knows what to do.

Last semester, the bright-eyed toddler was a lot more quiet and shy when she got her first taste of school. At the age of two, her parents enrolled her in the YMCA Early Learning Readiness Program offered through Manor Elementary, which was the school her younger brother attended.

“There was a delay in her speech and I was very concerned about that,” said Annabel Trevino, Nayeli’s mom.

Nayeli was one of 40 children, ages two to four, who participated in the program last spring offered through five different Manor and Austin ISD elementary schools:

  • Guerrero Thompson Elementary School (Austin ISD)
  • Houston Elementary School (Austin ISD)
  • Wynn Elementary School (Austin ISD)
  • Widen Elementary School (Austin ISD)
  • Blake Manor Elementary School (Manor ISD)

The free program, held each semester, targets low-income families who don’t have the ability to put their children in traditional early childcare.

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Nayeli Trevino, 2, playing while her older brother Joaquin does virtual school (Courtesy Annabel Trevino)

“I know that those kids don’t get all of the different engagement opportunities, and this way we focus on families that have the highest need to get ready for school,” said Missy Garcia, Senior Director of Community Programs for the YMCA of Austin.

Garcia helped launch the program nine years ago as an instructor in the classroom before moving into her current leadership role. Before the pandemic, parents or caretakers brought their children to the campus twice a week for a two-hour window.

Teachers guided the adults and children through a variety of fun activities and lessons in a Pre-K classroom that help build their developmental skills. It’s often the first time the kids have been exposed to an educational setting.

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Nayeli Trevino, 2, having fun at the YMCA Early Learning Readiness Program (Courtesy Annabel Trevino)

The program is not just about the kids. Garcia said it’s also aimed at building more confidence in the adults, and teaches them how to play and engage more effectively with their children at home.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last March and school buildings closed, the YMCA asked the families if they wanted to continue the program.

“They told us they still wanted to do it,” said Garcia. “They missed their friends from school, but mostly they missed the opportunity to come together with other families.”

The YMCA transitioned the program to a virtual format and removed some of the barriers by giving families free tablet computers to access the class, and free take-home kits with all the materials they needed to complete the activities.

Garcia said it was the best semester yet, and every single family stuck with it until the end of the semester.

Grading the program’s success

Trevino said the changes in her daughter, Nayeli, were significant after completing the program. In addition to becoming quite the chatterbox, she has more confidence, more creativity, a larger vocabulary and a new love for reading.

“She has definitely flourished due to this amazing program,” Trevino said.

The non-profit measures the program’s success each semester through parent surveys and an early intervention evaluation, which is compiled into a report card.

This last spring semester during the pandemic, more than 90% of the children who participated were developmentally on track with communication, motor, problem solving and social skills. In addition, 97% of of children knew more letters or words, and knew their numbers, 92% showed more of an interest in learning and new activities and 89% built more self confidence about learning.

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Nayeli Trevino, 2, in a Manor ISD classroom at the YMCA Early Learning Readiness Program (Courtesy Annabel Trevino)

Typically, the YMCA gives the families who participate with a free tablet at the end of the program, but now that it’s gone virtual the families receive the technology at the beginning so they can access the classes.

“We are out where these families are,” said Garcia. “We are meeting the needs that they have and so before it was in your neighborhood school, and now it’s in your home through a tablet that we are going to be providing so you don’t feel like you’re alone, because you’re not.”

What are the challenges?

Moving to a virtual format does present some limitations, similar to what traditional schools are experiencing. Face-to-face instruction is always ideal, especially with younger children.

A big part of the value of the Early Learning Readiness program is that children are able to experience a real classroom. Since that’s not possible right now, Garcia said teachers do their best to simulate it. 

The classes are modified a bit through the virtual format. Each of the in-person classes were two hours. The live, online lessons are only one hour due to the short attention span of young children.

One could also think WiFi access might not be a reality for some of the families struggling financially who want to be part of the program, but Garcia said that hasn’t been an issue so far.

Funding is also a challenge every year. The program is made possible through grants from the city of Austin and United Way. The YMCA wishes it could expand to more families in more schools, but Garcia said it does the best it can with what it has.  

The program is also offered during the weekday, which can prevent some working parents from participating. The YMCA said its focus is the caregiver who watches the children, which can include a grandmother, grandfather, aunt or uncle.

For parents or caretakers now working from home, the virtual format could also make it more accessible since it doesn’t require driving to a school campus.

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Trevino family (Courtesy Annabel Trevino)

The Trevino family is thankful it was a viable option for them.

“I was deeply moved by all of their hard work and what they did to bring the community together during this difficult time — allowing us the opportunity to continue teaching our children, and I’m always going to be deeply grateful,” Trevino said.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.