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Pre-K could be the achievement boost black DISD students need

One of the vexing problems Dallas ISD continues to struggle with is African-American students lagging behind their white counterparts.

The achievement gap for these students has been persistent, as high as a 30-point deficit in reading and math for fifth- and eighth-graders on the 2016 STAAR tests.

That’s unacceptable.

The district needs to put some extra effort toward shrinking this gulf — and it can start by getting more of these kids in pre-K so they don’t start school behind in the first place.

Structured early-childhood learning is key, given that an estimated 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5.

Kids in quality pre-K programs boost their chances of being ready for kindergarten, and they have more potential for success throughout their academic careers. And though DISD topped the 11,000 pre-K enrollment mark this year, hundreds of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds are not being served.

Black students make up about a quarter of the district’s pre-K program, but half of the total who attend classes outside DISD buildings, through partnerships with child care centers.

That has sent a signal to Derek Little, DISD’s assistant superintendent for early learning: The district has to do a better job of selling more African-American parents on the value of pre-K.

He’s found that many are more comfortable keeping their young children in informal home day care environments. Too often, they don’t see a place for their children in the district’s program, feeling as if they are geared more heavily toward Hispanics, which make up the majority of DISD students.

That has to change. These kids start school at a disadvantage if they’re not in a high-quality program. And they need more experienced teachers to keep them on track.

The district is doing a lot of things right. It’ll start its pre-K outreach tour on March 24, when educators take to the streets, knocking on doors. They’ll focus on southern Dallas neighborhoods with high numbers of eligible students and plenty of open seats.

What’s more, it’ll make its annual weeklong enrollment push with surrounding counties April 3-7. New this year: The district smartly decided to have families sign up at their familiar school campuses instead of the central office.

And there’s hope that the district’s new policy banning suspensions for minor offenses for young students will attract more black parents. Reports showed that minority children — African-American boys, in particular — are suspended at significantly higher rates than other students.

We urge trustees and council members who represent many of the city’s black residents to help rally support for pre-K. Trustees Lew Blackburn, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall and council members Erik Wilson, Casey Thomas, Tiffinni Young and Carolyn King Arnold: Let’s hear you sing the program’s praises in your community meetings.

Your youngest citizens deserve their best chance possible to compete.

This story originally appeared 3/9/2017 in The Dallas Morning News.