It's just before lunchtime at Austin's Pecan Springs Elementary School, where in one room a semicircle of 17 four-year-olds gesticulate appropriately while singing along with a recording. The children are among nearly 40,000 four-year-olds taking part in the first year of a new Texas prekindergarten program. In 1984, as part of a sweeping reform of the state's education system, Texas became the first state to require school districts to provide at least a half-day of preschool education to disadvantaged four-year-olds -- specifically, those who either do not speak or comprehend the English language, or who are from families whose income is at or below the subsistence level.
The idea, say educators involved with the program, is to give a boost to those children who otherwise would very likely start school behind their peers.
Responding to recent research favoring early education, at least for disadvantaged children, some states have recently moved to enhance prekindergarten offerings. Last year, for example, Illinois approved $12 million for programs targeting three- to five-years-olds considered ``at risk,'' and Missouri and Minnesota have established programs to help parents prepare their children for school.
But no state has gone as far as Texas, which appropriated $81 million for the first two years. Considering the state's strong conservatism and numerous vocal advocates of traditional, family-centered upbringing, that is surprising enough. But how did a state that doesn't even have compulsory kindergarten come to be the first to require districts to provide prekindergarten?
According to Ed Small, a member of the statewide committee that recommended the 1984 education reforms, the idea came from the months of public hearings the committee held around the state. ``Everywhere we went, we were told that the first, early years of education [preschool plus early elementary] are the critical ones,'' says Mr. Small, who is a member of the Austin School Board. ``People told us again and again that if we could do anything to bolster those years, that's what was needed.''
Others around the state point out that there was no stopping the program once H. Ross Perot, the Dallas billionaire and influential philanthropist who chaired the committee, got behind it.
The prekindergarten program is not just publicly funded day care. Nor is it intended to be kindergarten a year early. ``Basically it's language, language, language,'' says Timy Baranoff, Austin's director of elementary curriculum. ``The point is not to get them to count and know their letters. That's for later.'' While pencils and paper are virtually banished, students take part in activities that encourage them to think, express themselves, and come to realize that words are tools for them to use.
``That's quite a realization for some of these kids,'' says Dr. Baranoff, noting that many of the children perceive language as simply a means of receiving orders from adults. As they become more comfortable experimenting with language, she says, their confidence in themselves is often boosted.
Actually, the Austin program has been in existence for eight years, in which time the number of classes has jumped from 5 to 25. The district has found measurable progress among students in standardized test scores, and a recent study showed fewer discipline problems and referrals for special education among the pre-kindergarten participants than among similar students who weren't in the program.
Unlike Austin, however, a number of Texas districts are starting prekindergarten programs for the first time this year. According to Nancy Evans, principal of the prekindergarten center in the Ysleta district in El Paso, the major challenges the program faced were transportation (remedied by a system of color-coded buses and name tags) and making sure teachers ``understand what a four-year-old is like.'' She said many of the teachers hired for the program came from either kindergarten or elementary education, not preschool.
This has been a major concern of preschool specialists here. And there is some feeling that formal degrees are not necessarily the best way to address it. ``There's been this feeling around the state that if you don't have an elementary education degree, you can't teach four-year-olds,'' says Susan Berliner, executive director of the Austin Community Nursery Schools. ``But in fact that [degree] doesn't qualify you to teach them.''
There is also concern that quality may suffer as the program expands to include all the eligible children. But the biggest threat to the Texas program could be tumbling oil prices, which in Texas translate into less state revenue. ``When you look at whom this serves, and remember that the least vocal and powerful are also the most vulnerable, then you understand why this program could be in trouble,'' says Austin's Ed Small.