Study: 41 percent of Central Texas kids ready for kindergarten

The percentage of Central Texas students who have the skills they need to succeed when they enter kindergarten plummeted from 53 to 41 percent between 2014 and 2015, a decrease that education advocates say was caused by deeper poverty and the lingering impact of Texas’ 2011 education cuts.

The $4 billion cut from schools that year led many districts to trim early education programs, and funding from other government agencies for Austin-area early childhood services also was slashed.

The cuts prompted a local coalition to put together a school readiness action plan and work on increasing services in Central Texas, said Sue Carpenter, senior director of United Way for Greater Austin’s Success by 6 Initiative.

The dive in readiness rates, as reported in a study by the E3 Alliance, was expected because the children who were entering kindergarten in 2015 were those who had fewer prekindergarten services available to them in their early years, Carpenter said. Eligibility requirements also tightened.

The E3 Alliance is a local nonprofit that researches education trends.

Though Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature upped the state’s prekindergarten funding of $800 million a year by offering $118 million in grants over a two-year period, the money is still less than before the 2011 cuts were made.

“It’s sad for the community that fewer than half the kiddos are ready for kindergarten,” Carpenter said. She said she expects “there will be a few more down years before the arrow comes back up” and the results of the group’s efforts to expand access to pre-K3 over the past few years begin showing.

News of the drop in readiness rates comes as the Austin school district partners with United Way for Greater Austin and University of Texas researchers to study the effectiveness of its prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds.

“We believe having that extra year of pre-K3 (means) more of our kids are ready by the time they get to kindergarten,” said Jacquie Porter, the Austin district’s director of early childhood. “If that’s not the case, we want to be able to tweak the outcomes to make sure the kids are successful for kindergarten. The study will not only give us the information of where we are, but also the strategies of where to improve.”

Over the past two years, the Austin district has expanded the number of prekindergarten classes offered to 3-year-olds to boost enrollment and increase school readiness rates.

For the Austin district program study, the UT researchers will begin their pro bono work in early October, conducting assessments on 800 students through 2017-18.

Austin is one of the few districts that offers a full-day prekindergarten program to 3-year-olds. As districts across Texas and the country consider expanding such programs, the results of the evaluation are likely to inform their policy decisions, district officials said.

“I’m always excited to see an external evaluation of our programs, so that’s great,” board President Kendall Pace said. “We can impact what’s working and not working.”

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