I am an early childhood special education teacher at Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood, one of Houston Independent School District’s many amazing early childhood centers. Each year, my colleagues and I, teaching with compassion and heart, have the privilege of witnessing how 4-year-olds who start the year scared and bewildered by the concept of school grow and learn so that they exit the year as confident young scholars, ready for kindergarten.

We guide students who come in with no English language to become enthusiastic storytellers and actors. We coach young boys and girls who may never have had to share with others before to become good friends and helpers. We take kids who may not have access to books at home and help them learn letters, vocabulary and numbers so that they can be as ready as their peers who come from richer families when they enter kindergarten together.

HISD has also made an amazing commitment to early childhood education. Ten years ago, the district showed how much it cares about our youngest learners when it opened its first pre-kindergarten early childhood centers. Despite cuts to early childhood funding by the state, HISD has never wavered in providing full-day pre-kindergarten at most of its elementary schools and, now, nine early childhood centers.

However, there are so many ways we can improve early childhood education in HISD. There are still students in need of this early intervention who cannot make it into packed programs or don’t qualify because their families make slightly too much money to meet state guidelines. We need to ensure that any child who needs access to pre-kindergarten can get it.

We also need to make sure that we let children be children. There has been a creeping focus on judging 4-year-olds — and their teachers — based on how many discrete academic skills they can rattle off on a test. We need to do a better job recognizing that young children learn through play and experience, not memorizing facts. We need to understand that mastering social and emotional skills, like self regulation, social awareness, self concept skills and relationship skills, are just as important, and maybe more important, than being able to name all 26 letters or being able to create a pattern.

I am confident that HISD administration, through a long history of actions, understands the impact pre-kindergarten can have in a child’s life. Let’s keep that going, but let’s also realize we can make early childhood education even stronger and more developmentally appropriate for all the young children we serve. Let’s get to work.

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