Tempe Officials Begin Hiring Teachers For The City's Free Pre-K Program

By Carrie Jung
Published: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 7:14am
Updated: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 2:10pm

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Thew Elementary School
Carrie Jung/KJZZ
Thew Elementary School kindergartners play an educational game in 2017.

It’s mid morning at Thew Elementary School in Tempe and a group of kindergartners are diving into the world of basic math.

"Kaley had eight barbie dolls but her sister stole two," asked the teacher. "How many barbie dolls does Kaley have left?"

This kindergarten class of about 20 kids is bustling. Some students have paired up to play an educational game, others are putting puzzles together. And about six are sitting remarkably still for this lesson in subtraction.

The key phrase here is “sitting still." If you ask kindergarten teacher Tracy Valenzuela, just down the hall, that’s an important skill that kids don’t just naturally have, it has to be learned.

"When kids have that readiness to learn they know how to sit, they know how to listen even for short amounts of time. They absorb better," Valenzuela said. 

While Valenzuela said it is possible for parents of 3- and 4-year-olds to teach their kids these skills, they often fall short. Meaning when students get to her in kindergarten or even first grade, which is the first year of mandatory school attendance in Arizona, students often have to play catch up.  

"We’re expected to have them be able to read by the end of the school year," Valenzuela said. "It’s catch up all the time, and the unfortunate situation is that you catch them up but they’re still behind."

And fully catching up, she said, only gets harder as kids get older. State education advocates say preschool is one of the most effective ways to avoid a skills gap like this. But according to Census data, only 38 percent of Arizona’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in some sort of program.

Officials in Tempe used some grant funding to investigate those numbers further and found that in their city, about two-thirds of their students were not meeting kindergarten readiness benchmarks in the city of Tempe.

"A third of our 3- and 4-year-olds are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level," said Tempe City Council member David Schapira.

He said those numbers played a large role in the city’s formation of a two-year pilot program known in the city as Tempe Free PRE, or free full day preschool, for up to 360 kids from low income families. Schapira introduced the plan to city council in early 2015.

"The short term impacts are if you do a full day, full year program it allows families to get back into the job market who may not already be there," Schapira said.

Over the next two years officials will be working with researchers at Arizona State University to determine if the program is making an impact and should be continued.

City leaders say the metrics haven’t been officially set yet, but should include things like kindergarten readiness (i.e. how well students know their letters, shapes, numbers and colors) and other factors, including child and family stress levels and changes to income.

"We have a lot of work to do in Arizona to ensure all kids are exposed to quality educational environments whether it’s at home or at school," said Rebecca Gau, the director of Stand For Children Arizona, a local education advocacy group.

Gau said, in addition to the fact that a majority of state 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t going to preschool, not all programs are “high quality."

"Preschool has a really important impact on kids entering the rest of the K-12 system, and ensuring they’re going to have successful pathways to learning to read by third grade," she said. 

When it comes to Tempe’s pilot program, Gau said it’s still too early to pass judgement. But Stand For Children does say the program has some strong "high quality" components, like being all day and year-round.

As for Tempe City Councilmember David Schapira, he said after spending years trying to get efforts like this passed at the state level, he’s excited a local jurisdiction was able to approve it.

"I feel very fortunate to have landed on a city council where a majority of the members felt like this is a priority, and this is Tempe’s job," he said. "This is our job to do something about this."

Tempe Free PRE will cost the city about $3 million a year. That money will be pulled from Tempe’s restricted funds account, which is fed by revenue the city makes from land it sells and leases to developers.

The city just begun hiring teachers for the program and the first set of pre-kindergartners will start class in the Fall.

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