McAllen ISD launches tuition-based pre-K program

McALLEN — A new tuition-based pre-K program was announced by McAllen school district officials Monday morning as their latest move to attract more students to the district at the very beginning of their education.

“We believe that a tuition-based approach would give us an opportunity to get children in our school district,” said McAllen school district Superintendent Jose Gonzalez. “That would be a win for us because we are trying to increase enrollment, but more than that it would be a win for the students and their families because they will be able to get into our system and start their whole experience.”

The district is opening 125 slots that will be divided between four elementary schools — Castañeda, Perez, Rayburn and Sanchez — where parents of children who don’t qualify for the free full-day pre-k program could still enroll their children for $550 per month or $4,950 per year.

The program was discussed by the board of trustees and administration over the past few months as they weighed the benefits of getting those students enrolled in the district early on while giving parents another option. Same as with other public school districts, the pre-K program at McAllen school district is only available for families that qualify based on income level or military status, as state and federal funding for universal pre-K has been diminishing over the years.

“Unfortunately, as a district we can’t afford to do universal pre-k for everybody right now. It just doesn’t fit into our budget, but this was a compromise,” Gonzalez said. “This is comparable to what they (parents) are paying at learning centers right now. The only difference would be that it would be within a public setting right now and we believe that’s beneficial to the families and to the district.”

The main benefit of starting these children in a public setting is that children will be taught by certified teachers who can prepare them for the curriculum that they will be going into once they hit kindergarten and beyond, district officials said while discussing the program during several workshop meetings.

McAllen school district trustee Sam Saldivar said the district considered offering a universal pre-k program free of cost to all children but that would come at a ticket price of about $2 to $3 million per year, which the district can’t afford at this point. But this program is also not being implemented as a revenue source; he clarified, as the district is not expecting to break even on costs until the second or third year of these children being in the school system.

“We are not in the business of making a profit,” Saldivar said. “It would take holding those students coming through a program until the third grade, so we are talking about several years down the road of a sustained program, where we are going to begin seeing a return on investment because of the state funding we would get moving forward that would then be put back into the program and it would become self-sufficient.”

No additional hiring of staff or teachers was necessary for this initial phase, Gonzalez said, as they just shifted current personnel to those positions and these schools already had the classroom space available, as well as furnishings.

The program will launch as a first-come-first-served basis until the 125 spots are filled and students will begin on the 2018-2019 school year. Interested parents are being urged to call the district directly or any of the participating elementary schools.

After the initial year, district officials will assess the interest of parents and could expand the program to other campuses if the demand exceeds the space available, Gonzalez said.

“It’s just going to depend on the demand,” he said. “How many people actually come out? How much interest is shown in the program? And then we can run it and see how it impacts our existing pre-k program where families have to qualify for, and how does it impact the entire district. Then at that point, we’ll decide if and when we expand it.”