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Fort Worth Voters Consider Plans To Expand Pre-K

Voters in the Fort Worth Independent School District are being asked to support nearly half a billion dollars in bonds to improve facilities and instruction. Three proposals to do just that are on the Nov. 5 ballot. Offering pre-kindergarten to more children is one of the measures under Proposition 1.

At Maudrie Walton Elementary, four- and five-year-olds learn about the seasons, animals, shapes and sizes. They learn to read and answer questions about stories. And they learn to write the letters of their names.

"Oh, that's a beautiful A," Teacher Misty Hollis tells her student Amari Rowe. "Can you write some more A's for me? What letter is this?"

"A," responds Amari after some prompting from Hollis.

"A for Amari," Hollis says and then helps guide her in writing the letter A. "Start at the top...there you go. Now, can you do another one by yourself?"

"Yes, I can," Amari says enthusiastically.

Hollis describes what she's doing as helping fill the achievement gap. Her classroom is divided into different centers. For example, there's a construction center where students learn to build things using Legos and other materials. But only a certain number of students can be in each center at any given time. A "Stop" sign lets students know when a center is full. Following instructions, after all, is part of learning, too.

Hollis says studies show that kindergartners who were in pre-K outperform kids who were not. Nationally, there's been a push for more early childhood education.

“So we’re getting them ready for their pre-reading skills, their pre-math skills, pre-writing skills," Hollis says. "We’re putting everything in place so that when that kindergarten teacher gets them, they’re ready to go and fly."

Fort Worth’s pre-K is available to English-language learners and students who qualify for free and reduced meals. But if the bond measure passes, the program would be open to all children. That could expand enrollment from 4,000 to 7,000 kids.

District spokesman Clint Bond says the additional money would pay for 82 new pre-K classrooms -- an investments he says is worth it.

“Those children who don’t have those experiences in literacy and math and early language, by the time they get to the third grade, are really at a loss when it comes to academic success so we’re trying to prepare those students as best we can,” Bond says.

The proposed pre-K expansion is just $24 million of the $489.9 million on the ballot. The rest of the money would pay for district-wide technology and security upgrades, two new elementary schools and buses.

The district also wants to open a science, technology, engineering and math academy, and a performing arts school.

If all the propositions pass, Fort Worth homeowners would see a 3-cent increase in their school property tax rate. That would mean an additional $30 a year on the average home. That tax rate increase is a reason for some opposition.

“Just the out of control costs of these programs, and the cost outweighs the benefits," says Georgia Stapleton, who's a member of a group called It's Ok to Vote No." This does not do anything. Bonds don’t make kids smarter”

She said the group doesn’t support the district seeking additional money to pay for more facilities or programs like pre-K.

Back in Misty Hollis' classroom, students stand up and sing along to a song called "Opposites." They sing about front and back, cold and hot and the colors black and white. It's not unlike in an election where opposing forces will decide whether a program like this one should expand.

Tarrant County Elections Supervisor Steve Raborn said Tuesday that at the close of early voting Monday, just over 3,400 voters had cast ballots in the Fort Worth school bond election. He says this election will have a low turnout with about 7 percent casting their ballots.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.