Seated around a small table just a few feet off the ground, 4-year-olds intently fill their lined notebook pages with color drawings, reaching every so often into a red plastic basket to grab a new marker. One boy sketches a yellow sun, explaining to the teacher’s aide that he’s drawing yesterday’s weather.

Yo dibujé el clima de ayer,” the aide writes on a sticky note, which she places on his page.

At a nearby table, another group uses toy cars to trace the outline of large letters, deftly turning the wheels along the curves of an S and the sharp corners of an E. In 10 minutes, they’ll rotate to another station during this hour-long activity in a bilingual Ysleta Pre-K Center classroom.

Next fall, more El Paso County 4-year-olds will have access to free, full-day prekindergarten, as more area districts roll out universal pre-K programs that are open to any student regardless of eligibility, space permitting. By the 2022-23 school year, seven of the county’s nine districts will offer universal pre-K. 

Pre-K students in Bernadette Rey’s bilingual “Ladybugs” class work at stations on April 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Pre-K, like kindergarten, is not mandatory in Texas. Texas public schools are only required to provide free pre-K to students who meet select criteria, which is largely tied to low family income or limited English proficiency. Anthony and Tornillo are the only El Paso districts that offer pre-K exclusively to state-eligible students.

In 2019, the Texas Legislature mandated that districts offer full-day pre-K rather than half-day to eligible students, giving districts three years to implement it.

A pre-K student shows teacher Bernadette Rey her mock passport on April 13 as part of a unit on transportation. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso schools are going beyond the state minimum as part of an effort to boost educational attainment in a region that lags behind other parts of the state in the percentage of residents with a postsecondary degree or credential.

“It’s so important for us to get the kids as early as possible and start on that foundation work with phonics, with math, with social skills, with working on a team — all of those important things that are skills that they’ll need for the rest of their life,” said Fabens Independent School District Superintendent Veronica Vijil.

She co-chairs Early Matters El Paso, a coalition of education, business and workforce groups working to expand high-quality early education offerings. Fabens ISD has had universal pre-K since the last school year.

“(Universal pre-K) levels the playing field,” Vijil said.

Students who attend pre-K are more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those who don’t, according to Texas Education Agency data. In 2019-20, the last year before the coronavirus pandemic upended schooling, 41% of state-eligible students who attended pre-K entered elementary school as kindergarten-ready in Region 19, which includes El Paso and Hudspeth counties. That same year, just 26% of the region’s eligible students who didn’t enroll in pre-K were considered kindergarten-ready.

Albert Candia, a parent volunteer, reads to a 4-year-old class at the Ysleta Pre-K Center on April 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Ysleta Independent School District has seen a boost in educational performance since it transitioned from half-day pre-K to full-day in fall 2019. By the middle of this 2021-22 school year, 92% of its pre-K students were assessed as “on track” in math, 72% in letter knowledge and 84% in phonological awareness, according to YISD data. In every category, students had already exceeded the proficiency level reached by students at the end of the 2018-19 school year (the last full year before the pandemic).

Stephanie Rojas, who has taught pre-K at YISD for 17 years, says her 4-year-olds start the school year as “little blank slates.” Most don’t know how to write their name, and zipping up a backpack and putting on a jacket can be a challenge. Many are timid and shy.

“Through the entire year, it’s just leaps and bounds,” Rojas said. “By the end, they’re very independent and sometimes I even ask them, ‘Why am I here guys? You don’t need me here any more.’”

Teacher Stephanie Rojas checks in with her “Bumblebee” class during physical education at the Ysleta Pre-K Center on April 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

YISD was the first El Paso-area district to offer free universal pre-K starting in the 2015-16 school year, before briefly returning to eligibility requirements in fall 2019. Socorro ISD followed suit in 2016-17 with providing universal pre-K.

The 2022-23 school year will be the first time El Paso ISD offers universal pre-K, having previously allocated several spots for non-eligible students.

Because the state only partially funds pre-K for eligible students, districts must fund much of the programs themselves. But district administrators say universal pre-K is worth the cost. This school year, YISD budgeted more than $6 million alone for its two pre-K centers, which together enroll approximately 500 students.

By the time students complete pre-K, they are able to recognize letters, know letter sounds, recognize numbers, be able to count and do some basic addition and subtraction, said Rita Lopez-Rodriguez, principal of the Ysleta Pre-K Center. By the second half of the year, students begin sounding out words to read simple sentences.

Pre-K enrollment for the 2022-23 school year opened earlier this month and districts are working to register as many young learners as possible. Some administrators and teachers see this fall as the first opportunity to push full-day pre-K after the pandemic interruption and subsequent enrollment declines in early grade levels.

Students walk to their physical education class at Ysleta Pre-K Center on April 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Statewide, pre-K enrollment fell 22% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, largely because many parents did not want to navigate remote instruction with their youngest students.

Statewide data was not available for this year, when schools resumed in-person learning, but reports from some El Paso districts show that pre-K enrollment is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels. That’s partly because COVID-19 vaccines have not been available to the youngest students, Vijil said.

Back in the Ysleta Pre-K Center classroom, a group of students overlay flat, plastic geometric shapes on an outline of a motorcycle. As they fit the hexagons and trapezoids together, the bike takes shape. A little girl reaches over to help her classmate adjust a piece on the tire.

It’s interactions like these, Rojas said, that reflect the importance of pre-K.

“For any child who attends pre-K, I really do believe that it is a big stepping stone for them,” she said. “It’s a foundational skill that will go on with them forever.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.