Early Learning Leadership Matters in San Antonio

Pre-K 4 SA Workshop

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, districts across San Antonio welcomed more pre-kindergarten children into their elementary schools than ever before.

Districts expanded from half-day to full-day programming for 10,487 children, which is a 9% increase over the previous year. The expansion of district pre-k programs came as a result of the passage of House Bill 3 (HB3) on June 11, 2019.

The landmark legislation provides funding for full-day pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds who meet one of the longstanding eligibility requirements established by the state. Although HB 3 does not increase the number of children eligible for pre-k, it is an important step forward for early learning in Texas.

Although the growing number of pre-kindergarten classrooms is a win, the impressive outcomes that early education promises are only possible when programs are high-quality. School and program leaders are essential to establishing the conditions necessary to make this kind of quality possible. Research shows principals alone can account for 25% of a school’s impact on student learning and have the second largest in-school impact on student achievement after teachers.

In a report by New America, principals in a focus group said the most important part of their job is helping teachers provide high-quality instruction. However, many principals had no experience in early childhood education and they shed light on how little their preparation programs equip them to be instructional leaders for the early grades.

For the past two years, Pre-K 4 SA has partnered with the New Teacher Center (NTC) to launch the first Early Learning Leadership Program (ELLP) in San Antonio. Program participants are comprised of principals, district leaders and instructional coaches across seven districts (Edgewood ISD, Northside ISD, Northeast ISD, Harlandale ISD, Southwest ISD, East Central ISD, San Antonio ISD) and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The program has reached 150 school and program leaders which have impacted more than 3,500 children within our city.

The program is offered through two options: a nine-hour overview course and a nine-month intensive course, with most leaders opting into the longer intensive program.

“The Early Learning Leadership Program provides a unique opportunity for principals to focus on early childhood through professional learning and collaboration with other principals,” said Julia Schneider, director of early childhood in Northeast Independent School District. “It is changing the way our principals evaluate environments and instruction in their early childhood classrooms.”

The program includes six three-hour seminars, which focus on brain development, executive function, growth milestones and teaching practices that encourage language development and emerging math skills. It also includes “walk and talks” led by the ELLP team with principals to tour the program’s pre-k and kindergarten classrooms and to put to practice the knowledge participants are receiving through the seminars. ELLP team members also assist in answering any questions and overcoming challenges.

In addition, two observational walks with small groups of principals also take place. During these observations, a focus on an early learning problem of practice is posed by the group to guide the conversations. The group might look at the language teachers are using with children or how classroom environments are arranged.

One key element of the interactive sessions is demystifying concepts like “developmentally appropriate practice” and “playing to learn” by engaging principals in play! Betsy Fox, senior director of early learning partnerships at NTC, who leads the ELLP initiative with Pre-K 4 SA said, “Principals don’t often see the connection of play to learning. It’s about shifting the beliefs about how young children learn best.”

Whether participants are building brain architecture from pipe cleaners, or towers with straws and play dough, they are learning about how young children develop foundational academic, social-emotional and executive function skills. It’s important to work together and share knowledge about high-quality early childhood education in order to help San Antonio’s youngest learners.

Written by: Larissa Wilkinson, director of Professional Learning and Innovation

Pre-K 4 SA Hosts First Family Reunion to Celebrate the Power of Pre-K

family reunion

As its eighth year approaches, Pre-K 4 SA called together its alumni, families, staff and stakeholders to reflect on the organization’s accomplishments and celebrate the progress it continues making in San Antonio.

Each year, Pre-K 4 SA hosts many events such as a Grants Showcase, an annual Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens Art Exhibit to raise money for a local non-profit, as well as free professional learning workshops. The largest event planned to date was Pre-K 4 SA’s first Family Reunion. It was a special time to celebrate the power of pre-k and to see how alumni families are succeeding after Pre-K 4 SA.

After many hours of planning, the San Antonio Food Bank Pavilion was selected, and the date was set for Saturday, October 19, 2019. More than 800 Pre-K 4 SA families and children attended the event. Together they enjoyed healthy food, fun activities, and most importantly made unforgettable memories.

Dr. Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, began the presentation of speeches by inviting Ivyahna Slack, a first grader, and Elisa Maria Jaime, a fifth grader to the stage. These two Pre-K 4 SA alumni expressed how much Pre-K 4 SA has helped them build a strong foundation in their education. Elisa Maria Jaime delivered her first speaking points in English and finished her speech in Spanish.

Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley spoke about the program and how impactful Pre-K 4 SA continues to be for San Antonio. San Antonio’s First Lady Erika Prosper also shared her experience of how her son attended Pre-K 4 SA and how this program is preparing future generations for a bright future for our city.

The large orchard behind the Food Bank’s pavilion held numerous children’s activities, including moon bounces, hayrides, face art, dancing, bowling, pumpkin painting and more. Children were all given a Pre-K Power Passport and after completing an activity, they received a stamp of completion. Once the passport was filled, they received a prize.

All alumni were called to gather and stand in front of the stage to capture a group photo. Gathering the children was no easy task, but with the help of parents and personnel, Pre-K 4 SA’s photographer had the opportunity to capture unforgettable moments of Pre-K 4 SA’s alumni together in one place.

Many of the Pre-K 4 SA personnel volunteered their time and local high school students also helped monitor the activity stations for the children to have a great time. In a post-event survey, all families expressed how much fun the event was for the entire family. Pre-K 4 SA was also happy to see the positive responses and suggestions for a future event next year.

“My daughter completed Pre-K 4 SA three years ago but she still talks about her teachers, friends and memories from Pre-K 4 SA,” said Raquel Aguirre, Pre-K 4 SA parent. “This was such a great idea and time for the both of us. Thank you for all you’ve done for my family! We look forward to next year!”

Pre-K 4 SA opened its doors in 2013 and eight years later, its personnel were excited to see how children and their families were ecstatic to participate and come together to celebrate the power of pre-k.

Defining Social and Emotional Learning to Ensure Success

Defining Social and Emotional Learning to Ensure Success

It was not too long ago that social and emotional learning (SEL) in pre-k was thought of as sharing, playing nicely with others, and doing what your teacher asked. While these skills are definitely part of SEL, they are only the very basics of what we know to be foundational skills that impact cognition, academic learning, relationships and wellness.

Very often we think of development as occurring in isolated categories, with developmental milestones in areas such as language, cognition, and social and emotional skills being associated with specific ages. In truth, you really can’t separate them. They occur simultaneously and impact each other along the way.

The brain of a child during the early childhood years is undergoing such rapid development that it’s crucial educators address SEL in the same manner they address language and literacy, with research-based curriculum and dedication to effective teaching strategies.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional and Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process by which individuals acquire and apply knowledge and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, set and achieve goals, form relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  Social and emotional learning skills include five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

The outcomes associated with well-developed social and emotional skills are significant. School-age children have better academic performance and reduced disciplinary issues. Long-term outcomes include an increased likelihood of having healthy relationships, good mental health and stable employment. Meanwhile, there is a decreased likelihood of using drugs and being incarcerated. Studies have shown that employers specify competencies directly associated with social and emotional skills as critical in a highly-skilled 21st century workforce.

At Pre-K 4 SA, social and emotional learning is embedded in our HighScope curriculum. HighScope’s approach to teaching SEL is through effective teacher instructional practices that include positive adult-child interactions, and emphasize active participatory learning, regular routines and attention to an optimal learning environment. Children learn conflict resolution skills in the classroom as they navigate what is often their first classroom experience.

Pre-K 4 SA’s Social and Emotional Learning Team, comprised of behavior specialists and a licensed specialist in school psychology, supports SEL for all children and works to promote accessibility and meaningful inclusion for children with special needs. The SEL Team maintains a strong focus on helping children develop self-regulation skills that are crucial to building other SEL competencies such as relationship skills and responsible decision making. When children are able to self-regulate, they are better able to focus their attention, respond appropriately when upset, and learn new material. This contributes to a reduced need for more restrictive educational settings.

One of the most important aspects of solid social and emotional learning is parent involvement. Parents and caregivers are the experts on their child, as they know their child best. They provide teachers with valuable information that allows the school team to work together with them for best results. This coordinated effort between school, families and communities is what ensures success.

Written by: Maria Bayoumi, Pre-K 4 SA’s licensed specialist in school psychology

A Nutritional Program Paving the Way to a Healthier Community

A Nutritional Program Paving the Way to a Healthier Community

For many families, there may be an endless struggle at the dinner table to have children eat all of their fruits and vegetables.

However, Pre-K 4 SA is trying to change the evening argument by showing young children the importance of nutrition by having them grow fruits, vegetables and herbs in their very own garden.

For many years, Pre-K 4 SA has had gardens for its classes. However, last year, a Garden to Table program created by CHEF: Culinary, Health, Education for Families (CHEF) was introduced into Pre-K 4 SA’s curriculum. In this program, all classrooms are assigned a garden in their outdoor learning areas. Here, they plant seeds, then water, weed, and nurture their gardens until the students see the bounty of their efforts as the fruits, herbs, and vegetables sprout.

This academic year, the CHEF program was modified to meet Pre-K 4 SA’s high-quality standards and introduced to teachers. As of October, teachers are teaching basic nutrition and practical cooking skills to encourage healthy eating routines. Additionally, CHEF is collaborating with the San Antonio Food Bank in teaching the importance of nutrition to San Antonio’s youngest learners at Pre-K 4 SA.

“Health and nutrition have become an integral part of my life and sharing what I’ve learned has become my goal,” said Julie Taylor, CHEF instructional specialist. “CHEF has allowed me to bring knowledge to young children through hands-on, meaningful activities that teach basic nutrition and practical cooking skills.

CHEF’s mission is “rooted in the belief that food is medicine.” The organization’s ultimate goal is to motivate individuals and communities to adopt and sustain healthier eating habits.

In San Antonio, CHEF is known through its collaborations with the Children’s Hospital to educate and heal patients and families. CHEF actively trains and certifies healthcare providers in culinary medicine and performs clinical research to measure the efficacy of the CHEF protocol in an acute care setting. Representatives also teach nutrition in after school programs throughout the community.

Every month, a teacher from each classroom will choose a time, day and recipe for his or her class to prepare. In small groups of 10 students, the children will create a recipe by picking their ingredients from their gardens. Classroom-grown fruits, herbs and vegetables will be washed and prepared for recipes. Ingredients not on hand will be ordered from the San Antonio Food Bank.

One of the children’s favorite recipes is “confetti corn,” which has a variety of colorful vegetables such as cooked corn kernels, poblano peppers, carrots, green onions, and cilantro. To better guide the children in understanding the recipe, they are provided a recipe with pictures to help them distinguish between the vegetables.

Once the vegetables have been washed, teachers show their students how to properly hold and use their kid-safe knives and cutting boards for the cutting process. The children begin to carefully cut, cube and dice as they prepare their ingredients for the recipe at hand.

As part of high-quality standards, throughout the 20 to 30 minutes of building a recipe, teachers encourage students to assist their families in cooking at home. Children learn more about the five food groups and the importance of balanced meals and healthy food portions.

Teachers take the time to engage with the students and discuss their experience using new utensils, different tastes and textures of each ingredient, and the combined taste of ingredients. Teachers are encouraged to use culinary terms to help students expand their knowledge of nutrition.

As part of the CHEF program, parents are encouraged to volunteer in their child’s class to assist teachers and students. The added support by parents encourages them to learn more about nutrition and see firsthand what ingredients and recipes their children enjoy.

Children begin to understand that with practice, cooking becomes more fun. Recipes are seen as guidelines for creative and delicious meals. Pre-K 4 SA is happy to fully incorporate the CHEF program to instill balanced nutrition at a young age.

The CHEF program encompasses much more than just ingredients in recipes. As part of Pre-K 4 SA and its core curricular innovations, 4-year-olds are able to refine their motor skills and develop a new vocabulary that promotes stronger health outcomes for the child’s future.

Creating Stronger Brains through the Arts

Art Infusion

Many tend to associate the arts with Picasso paintings or Shakespearean plays. However, many don’t realize how impactful the arts can be in early childhood education.

On Tuesday, September 3, 2019, Dr. Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, and Dr. Kimberly Stephenson, director of education for The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, discussed “The ‘A’ in STEAM: The role arts integration plays in San Antonio’s classrooms, community, and corporate culture.” Baray explained how Pre-K 4 SA integrates the arts into its curriculum.

During her presentation, there was an overview of the complexity of a child’s brain architecture. Children are born with endless possibilities, and their brains are prewired to allow them to learn anything. Children are capable of speaking any language or multiple languages, developing musical talents, or being facile with numbers.

“Over 90% of brain development occurs before the age of five,” said Baray. “This means that the way our brains will be structured for the rest of our lives is determined at a very early age.”

From the moment a child is born, his or her brain begins to strengthen some of those wires and eliminate others. Those pathways that are frequently stimulated through experiences and interactions get reinforced, while other paths that are seldom used will diminish.

For example, although children are born with the ability to speak any language, they initially learn only those languages that are spoken to them in their households. If children learn multiple languages early in life, it becomes easier for them to learn additional languages later in life because their brain already has strong pathways to support multilingualism. If children grow up only speaking one language, it’s more difficult to learn another language later in life because the brain is trying to build a new pathway when development is slower.

The human brain continues to develop until death. However, the rate of development slows down significantly as people continue to age. In the first five years of life, the brain makes one million neuronal connections every second. Thereafter, from the ages of six to 20, brain development slows down moderately and continues to do so throughout life.

“After the age of 20, our brain development happens at a snail’s pace in comparison to what happens in our early years,” said Baray. “We can still develop new pathways but it takes longer.”

The arts are essential to high-quality early learning not only because we want children to develop the brain architecture to support artistic talents and interests, but also because art is a language and a mode of expression.

Interestingly, art integration is not the norm in most schools today. Over the past 30 years, creativity and the arts have been removed from the K-12 education system. The arts have become an optional aspect and because they’ve been marginalized for the last two decades, children are losing their innovational edge.

For this reason, art integration is a critical tenet of the Pre-K 4 SA approach to high-quality early learning and forms part of one out of the four core curricular pillars. Pre-K 4 SA incorporates the Wolf Trap model into every classroom by inviting local artists to work with the children in creating original works of art.

Another way Pre-K 4 SA incorporates art into its curriculum is through their Gracias San Antonio: Children Are Citizens Project. The project begins in November with the children’s participation in a program-wide election to vote on a local non-profit to support for the academic year. Throughout the year, children and families engage in City Explorations with Pre-K 4 SA teachers by visiting different places around San Antonio as inspiration for pieces of art.

Pre-K 4 SA invites local artists to assist classrooms with the creation of authentic art pieces that express the children’s perspective of the city. More than 100 pieces of art are created and displayed in a public gallery to be auctioned to raise money for the local non-profit organization. Many who attend the annual Gracias showcase are amazed to see the wonderful pieces created by the minds and imaginations of young children.

Pre-K 4 SA strongly believes that by engaging students in art experiences at a young age, children more deeply develop their thinking and creativity, learning to express themselves in a variety of ways.

Pre-K 4 SA Provides Parent Training to Help Build a Foundation for the Future

parent training

Pre-K 4 SA continues to share the value of early childhood learning by offering parents more resources about the importance of a high-quality education.

Pre-K 4 SA is known for its work with young children. However, it isn’t only young children who benefit from its high-quality programing. Pre-K 4 SA also works with adults by providing over 10,000 hours per year of professional learning for educators who teach young children, and created a partnership designed to extend programs to parents.

Most recently, the City of San Antonio Head Start program and Pre-K 4 SA joined to offer parents a Child Development Associate Credential (CDA). This program provides parents the ability to enter the early education field and excel as their child’s first teacher before he or she enters a formal kindergarten program.

A CDA credential provides the education and the necessary training to ensure an assistant teacher is well prepared to deliver high-quality instruction. High CDA program costs make this credential unattainable for many, but Pre-K 4 SA is providing access to more parents and educators within the community. Pre-K 4 SA provides the hands-on course instruction delivered by Ashley Orihel, professional learning specialist at Pre-K 4 SA.

In the first class of the CDA program offered by Pre-K 4 SA, Ashley led a group of 12 dedicated parents. The participants received 120 hours of instruction and reviewed numerous topics, from classroom safety to all of the areas of a child’s physical, emotional, and behavioral development. Additional classes covered the creation of a professional portfolio with a strong emphasis on essay writing.

In addition to curriculum instruction, parents were required to work as volunteers in a classroom setting for 480 hours throughout the five-month program. Many enjoyed the hands-on experience so much that they exceeded the minimum number of hours needed to earn the credential, despite having other jobs and family responsibilities.

Ashley dedicated her time to building relationships with each parent, addressing concerns and challenging them to gain a better understanding of the value and importance of early childhood education.

Pre-K 4 SA recognizes parents as critical educational assets because they’re their child’s first and most important teacher. Pre-K 4 SA believes every child deserves a high-quality education that begins with parents, regardless of the family’s education or economic limitations.

“[The CDA program] is one of the most powerful things I’ve experienced since being at Pre-K 4 SA,” said Orihel. “The impact this program has had on the workforce in San Antonio is just amazing.”

Parents who received the CDA credential gained professional skills to make them more marketable in the early childhood education field. Before the completion of the program, four parents were offered a full-time substitute position, and one of them began a position at Stafford Early Childhood Center.

“There were many positive outcomes from taking this high-quality CDA program,” said Demetria Keys, a parent and program participant. “I was hired as a substitute teacher at the same school I was taking the class. The doors just opened up to many things.”

The interactive and intensive CDA program offers its alumni more than curriculum and instructional opportunities; it builds leadership skills and confidence. One parent currently sits on the policy council for Head Start, another is a PTA vice president, and one is a director of children’s ministry at a local church, while others host community events at local schools.

“Originally, I was interested in the course to get more information about my kids,” said Vanessa Bermudez, a parent and program participant. “Both of my children have developmental differences, so I took this class to help me understand them better.”

Due to the success of the first cohort, the City of San Antonio Head Start and Pre-K 4 SA are planning to have two cohorts at the same time—at no cost—for the 2019-2020 academic year. One class is scheduled to be held at Edgewood ISD, and the other at San Antonio ISD. Alumni from the first cohort have volunteered to share their own impactful experience with the next group of participants.

The CDA program was designed to align with Pre-K 4 SA’s mission to change the educational and workforce trajectories in San Antonio in one generation. Pre-K 4 SA is glad to take part in contributing to early childhood education today and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Building High-Quality Education One Child Development Center at a Time

4-star TRS provider

For some parents, the search for a Child Development Center (CDC) begins shortly after they learn they are expecting. Parents want to give their children the best start in life and that includes providing their children with the best early childhood education available. However, there are factors which can impede them from finding a high-quality center for their child.

The State of Texas has implemented a quality improvement rating system for CDCs, the Texas Rising Star (TRS). According to the TRS website, this program is “a voluntary, quality-based child care rating system of child care providers participating in the Texas Workforce Commission’s subsidized child care program.”

TRS is a quality rating tool which includes three levels of quality: 2-star, 3-star, and 4-star, with 4-stars being the highest level of TRS certification. CDCs are limited within our city, and many have long waitlists; therefore, parents often opt for a closer, uncertified center for the first years of their child’s life.

Currently, 89% of CDCs are not certified in San Antonio. Family-owned, corporate, and faith-based CDCs need support to provide a high-quality education that each child deserves.

The minimum benchmark for child care centers is through the Texas Health and Human Services Minimum Standards for Child Care Centers.

“Centers need to adhere to all minimum licensing standards,” said Janet Henry, professional learning specialist with Pre-K 4 SA. “However, they often have too many deficiencies or critical deficiencies which prevent them from becoming TRS certified.”

In 2016, Pre-K 4 SA saw the need to support CDCs in San Antonio to increase the quality of the centers. Pre-K 4 SA responded by creating a grants program that included CDCs. In its first year, 13 centers were chosen to receive funding through a competitive grants program after responding to a request for proposal for the academic years of 2016-18. The second group of nine centers was recently chosen to receive funding for the 2019-21 academic years, with a new requirement that the centers must be nationally accredited or TRS certified.

In early 2019, Pre-K 4 SA also began a Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) Cohort, specifically targeting centers throughout the city that would like to become TRS certified. Directors attended monthly meetings to understand and apply the standards at their sites. Funding was provided to several of the centers to assist them in pursuing TRS certification. A new cohort of interested participants began in September 2019.

Northwood Presbyterian Day School is a participant and awardee of the CQI Cohort and Request for Proposals. After an intensive application and interview process, the center began receiving its grant in July 2018. Shortly after, Janet Henry became its professional learning mentor to start preparing the center for the TRS assessment.

Pre-K 4 SA determines the necessities of each center by using an internal High-Quality Impact Pyramid Tool. This pyramid is compared to a nutritional pyramid where the vital, high-quality, foundational practices are located at the bottom, and they are referred to as tiers. Tier 1 is Program Features and Staff Qualifications and starts allocating grant funds in this area. Tier 2 consists of Instructional Quality and Physical Learning Environments. Tier 3 involves Family Engagement and Outreach, and finally, Tier 4 brings Innovation.

As the centers progress, the High-Quality Impact Pyramid Tool allows them to be considered to receive assistance in the higher tiers, and gives them the opportunity to raise their center’s overall quality.

For the past year, Northwood Presbyterian Day School has made modifications and has developed new practices. Frog Street was adopted as the center’s formal curriculum. While the majority of the funds was used to remodel the school’s current playground into an outdoor learning classroom, the grant funds also made it possible to purchase furnishings, chairs, tables, manipulatives, and multilingual publications.

“Janet Henry was very open and receptive to the staff here at Northwood,” said Director of Northwood Presbyterian Day School, Rebecca Cranfill. “She was a very great mentor and leader who brought in a lot of new ideas and excitement. She also allowed us to give our feedback and to grow along in the process.”

The grant program requires administration, teachers and staff to attend 30 hours of best practices for early childhood over a span of one year. Cranfill recalls speaking with teachers after returning from their monthly trainings.

“Our teachers were enthused and ready to start implementing new practices in the classroom immediately,” added Cranfill.

After the long hours of hard work, Northwood Presbyterian Day School received a 4-star rating on June 20, 2019, following its initial TRS assessment.

“If any center in San Antonio has a true passion for children’s education or wants to build a high-quality center, the support provided by Pre-K 4 SA is unparalleled,” Cranfill said. “It was such a blessing for us. By receiving the grant, we were able to accomplish some of those things for which we previously didn’t have funding.”

Currently, Pre-K 4 SA is assisting over 20 centers throughout the city become nationally accredited or TRS certified, and is currently recruiting additional centers.

Twins Overcome Health Challenges and Thrive at Pre-K 4 SA


Six months into her pregnancy, Maria Montiel began to feel contractions, and her mother’s intuition told her it was too soon for her to deliver her twins. After suffering a miscarriage at the same time during a previous pregnancy, she knew she needed medical attention.

Maria entered the emergency room, with tears in her eyes, fearing for her babies’ lives. She saw the twins on the fetal monitors and was assured by her doctor that everything would be OK.

Liam and Ryder were born micro preemies at 24 weeks. With weak immune systems and only a 50% chance of living, the twins had to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for more than 115 days.

As the twins grew, many medical challenges followed, including seizures. David and Maria Montiel viewed their home as a safe haven to protect their children from viruses that could become fatal for their children.

Scientific and medical research shows that the most rapid brain development occurs in the first few years of life. While the Montiels were doing what they felt was in the best interest of their twins to keep them healthy, they recognized that the lack of socialization with other children at an early age could cause a setback in the twins’ early education and social development. Both parents were still apprehensive about enrolling their children in a pre-k program but knew it had to be done if the boys were to build a strong foundation for their future.

“We were afraid to leave our lives—our children—in the hands of a school that would not pay attention to them and their health,” Maria said.

For the first four years of the twins’ lives, Liam and Ryder were an ever-present fixture at their parents’ side. That all began to change when the Montiels registered at Pre-K 4 SA. During Welcome Week, the parents let the boys spread their wings and play with other children their age during parent orientation. Maria and David were still hesitant to let their twins out of their sight, but the twins were ecstatic to have met and played with other children.

The Montiels also noticed that Pre-K 4 SA did something that many schools don’t do anymore.

“When the teachers came to the house for a home visit, I knew that Liam and Ryder were heading to a great school. The attention that their teachers demonstrated is unheard of,” David said.

The Montiels have always felt welcomed and confident in the safety of their children at the Pre-K 4 SA West Education Center. That trust was put to the test when Liam suffered a seizure in class just two months into the school year.

Because of the Montiels’ concerns regarding the health of Liam and Ryder, the Pre-K 4 SA staff, including Mark Martinez, Liam’s Pre-K 4 SA teacher, designed a personal emergency plan for both children. The emergency plan was executed correctly, and Liam received successful medical attention in a timely matter.

“Communication from the parents was important. So when [the seizure] happened, it was controlled in the most appropriate manner for everyone involved,” said Martinez.

Pre-K 4 SA listened to the Montiels’ concerns and goals for their twins and implemented strategies to address the boys’ individual needs. It was essential to strengthen their social and communication skills so the twins were enrolled into separate classes.

Ryder had been the more outgoing and active of the two, and he tended to answer for his brother. Placing the twins in separate classes was essential to help Liam develop socially. As a result, Liam has flourished by becoming more engaged in group activities and is eager to share his work with others.

Since enrolling at Pre-K 4 SA, the Montiels have taken advantage of the program’s family specialist and parent liaisons to be involved in all aspects of their children’s early education. They have attended free family workshops and training opportunities offered by Pre-K 4 SA to actively learn more about their children to be consistent in continuing their learning at home.

“The Montiels are always helping in some way,” said Virginia Sandoval, parent liaison at the West Center. “They are very supportive and motivated to help their children grow and succeed.”

David and Maria are grateful to have found a high-quality pre-k program that has helped their twins thrive despite their health challenges. They have seen how much their children have learned and grown in a matter of months.

Liam and Ryder have been accepted to Gardendale Elementary, Pre-K 4 SA’s new partner. The Montiels plan to stay involved in their children’s education and only seek out high-quality programs which truly make a difference.

Classroom inclusion makes all the difference

children play with water hoe and bottles outside

Delia Ruiz was sure that her 4-year-old son, Dylan Granato, was more than ready to start Pre-K. He was a sharp, young boy who already knew his colors, shapes, and alphabet. She was excited to finally enroll her first child into Pre-K 4 SA.

But in a matter of two weeks, Delia received a call from the school asking her to meet to discuss a concern with her son.

Delia attentively listened as Mrs. Tamara Clary, Dylan’s teacher, and Kimberly Juarez, behavior specialist at the South Education Center, explained how Dylan came in with self-regulation issues, lacked communication skills, and would push and shove his peers.

“He was having a hard time, behavioral wise, with sharing and transitions, and a lot of things. So I thought, ‘Do I need to take him out of school?’ I started thinking that he was an issue!” Delia said. “I had mixed emotions and I didn’t know what to do.”

But what Delia soon realized was that Pre-K 4 SA personnel didn’t allow her to feel alone. Better yet, they acted with genuine personal interest and began to explain that Dylan was demonstrating characteristics of autism. He stayed in the standard classroom but the Pre-K 4 SA team created a plan of action to help Dylan.

Pre-K 4 SA is an inclusive environment, and part of the reason we use the HighScope curriculum is that even children with special needs are able to engage in the classroom and still be a part of it in an authentic way.

“Inclusion is very important for children with special needs because they learn from their peers. In a classroom, they get to be with children their age and have social situations through which they learn to interact with one another,” Clary said.

After the initial meeting, Delia implemented the recommendations provided by Pre-K 4 SA’s Social and Emotional Learning Team. At the same time, she educated herself about behavioral issues and autism. She researched online articles on the topics, sought out local groups, and even enrolled in a Parent Leadership Academy at Region 20.

Delia realized that consistency and teamwork are very important in order for Dylan to continue learning. Not only does she have to continue learning about these topics, but since Dylan has a close relationship with his grandparents, she also has to pass on this knowledge to them.

Delia’s determination to find a solution for her child underscores the vital role parents play in their children’s education. And when parents, teachers, and behavioral specialists work together, children thrive.

“The better educated a parent is about what is going on with their child, the better advocate they can become. As they move through different school systems and through life, they can help support their child,” said Maria Bayoumi, Pre-K 4 SA’s licensed specialist in school psychology.

Dylan’s mother, family, and Pre-K 4 SA staff noticed that in a matter of only six months he’s come a long way!

Josylnn Benitez, teacher assistant, and Elisandra Guajardo, a Trinity University graduate and candidate for a master’s in school psychology, assist Dylan on a daily basis with his class activities. They both make sure he follows a personalized schedule and they continuously help him strengthen his social and communication skills.

At the beginning of the year, Dylan struggled to make new friends but now every morning, his peers are anxiously waiting for him. Even though strengthening skill deficits is an ongoing process, Dylan is smart and learns very quickly.

When you mention Dylan’s name to the South Education Center staff members, you can’t help but notice their faces light up. His impactful experience here at Pre-K 4 SA has touched so many and his experience demonstrates the importance of inclusion.

“We are lucky to have him and hope Dylan stays connected with us because we know he will achieve great things in life,” Benitez said.

Currently, Dylan is undergoing evaluations for autism; however, Pre-K 4 SA’s focus is the identification and targeting of skill deficits, and providing meaningful inclusion instead of solely focusing on obtaining a diagnosis label. We want children, like Dylan, to be ready for Kindergarten and to excel for the rest of their lives.