For years, the McAllen ISD Pre-Kindergarten Program has been producing stellar results and the state has taken notice.

Officials studied McAllen ISD with a fine, tooth comb and plan to submit their findings to the Texas Education Agency — the state’s governing body for education — in coming months.

It all began when the TEA touted McAllen ISD along with a handful of other districts for closer study last summer. The data will serve as a guidepost for other programs across the state.

“We think you all are great,” said Lilie Elizondo-Limas, TEA Director for State Initiatives, School Readiness & Partnerships.

A research firm studied McAllen ISD’s Pre-Kinder program on behalf of TEA. They are focusing on the district’s parent-outreach efforts.

“I’ve always been a big proponent of early childhood (education) because of what it offers,” McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce, Ed.D., said. “This is a reflection of the caring quality and commitment we have to the children of our district. (Early engagement) helps provide the other skills necessary to be successful in school. It’s one more way of fulfilling our promise (to students).”

Lucie Bardone, an official with Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing (SMAM), said the information will ultimately benefit other parents statewide. Her marketing company gathered the information on behalf of Texas Education Agency.

“The information collected on behalf of TEA will be used in the development of a ‘tool kit’ to help districts statewide provide effective, up to date information about free pre-kindergarten programs,” Bardone said. “(McAllen ISD’s) interview, along with parent responses will help us develop a useful tool for outreach to families whose children are eligible for free pre-kindergarten services.”

“When the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) presented the findings to TEA, they presented MISD as a premier district because they saw high levels of implementation of the research-based curriculum,” explained Dr. Carol Perez, who oversees McAllen’s pre-kinder program. “They came in and visited our district’s pre-k classrooms and they were amazed. The children were highly engaged in learning activities. The children were excited to be at school. They just left with a plan to go ask TEA to expand this project to all Texas schools.”

Many parents of pre-kinder children were excited to hear the news.

It’s good. Good news,” Jose Lara, a parent at Jose De Escandon Elementary, said. “It makes me feel that he’ll (son) be taken care of and it makes me feel that the personnel here are going to treat him great and make sure he learns what he needs to learn to get to the next level.”

“I am so happy (to hear that) because my son belongs to McAllen ISD,” Chona Alvarez, a parent at Lucile McKee Hendricks Elementary, said.

Two grants have played a key role in building up the pre-kinder program. They are the Texas Pre-Kindergarten LEP (Language English Proficiency) grant and the Pre-Kindergarten Early Start grant.

Both grants provide up to $4,000 per teacher for educational materials that allow for hands-on activities with children. At four-years-old, hands-on learning tools facilitate learning for young children.

Some of these materials include letter walls, read-aloud charts, CD ROMS with school lessons on every subject and they are available in English and Spanish.

Rhoda Martinez, another Hendricks parent, noticed improvement in her daughter’s vocabulary plus learning to be more social after going through pre-kinder two years ago.

“It was great for her to have that interaction with her teacher and she’s very respectful,” Martinez said. “It was wonderful.”

“He picked up more in his vocabulary,” Jose Antonio Navarro Elementary parent, Norma Tellez, observed in her son when he was in pre-kinder. “It was a good experience for him. He picked up a lot. He learned quite a bit.”

Erica Perez, a 2001 James “Nikki” Rowe High graduate, enrolled her daughter at Hendricks.

“I’m excited because I know she’s going to learn a lot,” she said. “She’s going to have a lot of fun.”

Grant monies also pay for a professional who acts as a mentor providing professional development to pre-kinder teachers in the district. They use his strategies and he can observe them in class and review their performance plus act as a resource when they have questions.

The district expects to enroll about 1,300 pre-kinder students this year.

“When we received visitations from the Children’s Learning Institute, they gave us all kinds of praise for the implementation and on how our teachers created those environments that are rich to build the literacy children need to get themselves ready for kindergarten,” Dr. Perez said.

McAllen ISD was a pilot district for the Pre-K LEP grant — one of just three in the state at the inception and now the only one in the state to continue the grant entering its third year. The grants provided resources for professional development of teachers and the students reap the rewards of those efforts.

In early August, it was announced TEA had recognized McAllen ISD’s Pre-Kinder program as one of the top ten programs in the state. This is misleading. TEA provided an informal list of excellent programs to a research company to study. The data can then be used to assist other school districts.

McAllen ISD has been fortunate enough to offer full-day pre-kinder for 13 years now.

The Children’s Learning Institute was established in 2003 at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. They conduct research on early childhood development and act as a resource for schools across the state.

“What they (TEA) want to do is replicate our effort throughout the state,” Dr. Perez said.