Las Cruces schools are back in session. And for the first time, some classrooms are filled with the tiniest learners: pre-kindergarteners. Las Cruces Public Schools is one of 11 districts across the state that just launched New Mexico PreK, a state-funded program for four-year-olds. Other districts expanded the program. The new seats help fill a gap in early childhood education.
It’s the first day of PreK at Jornada Elementary School, and there’s a flurry of activity. Kids stack blocks precariously high, flip through picture books, and spoon-feed their baby dolls sand - I mean, carrots and mashed potatoes.
Jornada is one of seven local schools that started offering New Mexico PreK this year. Principal Evangeline Barela says when she got the call asking if her school would like to add a PreK class, it was a no brainer.
“My first response was yes, and where do I sign?” she says.
Jornada already had a Head Start program, which serves low income students, and a program called DD Pre, for students with developmental delays.
“But we had parents asking, ‘what about students that may not qualify for either one of those programs?’” Barela says.
It’s hard to find free or affordable PreK, or any form of early childhood education, in Doña Ana County.
Erica Surova is with the Center for Community Analysis at New Mexico State University. “We did an analysis last year and we found that only 36% of children under the age of five have access to free or subsidized high quality early childhood education," she says. "For children that are two years old and younger there’s even less access." Only about 21% of those youngsters have that kind of access.
It’s hard to compare Doña Ana County with the rest of the state or country, because Surova and her team have really specific criteria for what qualifies as high quality. But she says those numbers are troubling, “because we have a lot of children under the age of five that are living in poverty.” About 44%, which is higher than the state average.
“If we don’t provide these opportunities for children, we’re setting them up for failure, really,” says Surova.
A ton of brain development happens before children start kindergarten. Surova says it’s critical to reach children at an early age, when their brain architecture is actually being built. She says waiting until age five is too late; you can start to see language gaps in children at around 18 months.
Research has found that early childhood education can make a difference. In states like Oklahoma and North Carolina, students in preschool programs ended up with higher test scores, lower retention rates, and - at least in North Carolina - fewer special education placements.
But that didn’t hold true in Tennessee, where most positive effects of PreK faded by second or third grade.
Surova says that’s not necessarily an argument against PreK. “One of the problems with looking at that type of data is that you don’t know what happened between K and 3, if the teachers aren’t capitalizing on that progress that the children are coming in with,” she says.
And many researchers agree the quality of PreK and other early childhood education programs matters. You can’t just dump a bunch of children into an overcrowded classroom, sit them on the carpet all day, and lecture at them. The most effective classes have a low student teacher ratio and an evidence-based curriculum that involves lots of learning through play.
That’s what happening here at Jornada Elementary. Children cycle through different stations, each intended to build and test specific skills.
Martha Benavidez is the new PreK teacher. “When you go into a classroom it’ll look like chaos,” she says. “But it’s very much planned out play. It’s intentional play. I explain to the parents that you know what, they’re gonna come home and say ‘we played, we played, we played.’ And they did. But there’s a lot of learning going on through play.”
Principal Evangeline Barela says the demand for this type of program is high. She capped the PreK class at 16 students and says there’s a waiting list. Barela hopes the district can offer even more seats next school year.