The 2019 Texas legislative session was a success for Susan H. Landry, PhD, who directs the Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, when the institute received a healthy increase in critical state funds that will help the very youngest students get a jump start to lifelong learning.
Recognizing the value of early childhood education, Texas First Lady Laura Bush advocated for statewide funding for the Children’s Learning Institute’s Texas School Ready program in the early 1990s. This comprehensive preschool teacher training program combines research-based, online courses, face-to-face coaching, child progress monitoring tools, and curricular resources to alter teachers’ institutional practices to help children be more prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
Texas School Ready provides tools to help teachers learn more about the specific instructional needs of the children in their classrooms and how to support children using engaging lessons and activities. Since 2003, Texas School Ready has positively impacted nearly 500,000 children and 25,000 early childhood teachers in Texas. As a result of the program, teachers are more responsive to the individual needs of the children in their classrooms and increase their use of language-building strategies.
However, with an ever-changing economic climate, state biennium funding dropped from $15 million to $7 million in 2011, then to $3.5 million in 2017.
In an effort to continue serving as many teachers and children as possible after the first drop in funding, Landry’s team created an online platform with the Texas School Ready tools. “Our professional development training, progress monitoring, and classroom tools—these became open sources to all Texas schools, Head Start programs, and child care centers serving low-income families,” says Landry. The online program, called CLI Engage, launched at the end of 2015.
“However, the 2017 cut in funding limited our ability to provide coaching,” explains Landry. “This is not something we could put on our online platform.” Landry adds that while CLI Engage is highly used across the state, when you do not have the coaching model, you are missing a key component. Coaching helps teachers enhance their performance in the classroom to improve their practice and foster a better learning environment for children.
Thanks to the Legislature, especially members of our regional delegation returning the funding back to the $7 million level for fiscal years 2020-2021, Texas School Ready will be able to provide five coaching sessions to approximately 500 pre-kindergarten teachers per year over the biennium. The program is targeting public schools and charter schools in West Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, rural communities, and communities with bilingual classrooms.
“We reached out to public schools to develop a plan to prioritize coaching sessions,” says Landry. “Because so many schools want and need it, our hope is that we will eventually get back to the $15 million in biennium funding to allow us to work closely with more public schools.”
As of December 2019, the team has recruited its first group, which represents 16 school districts, 136 teachers, 2,992 students, and 18 counties. By staying on this path, Landry expects they will serve 48 school districts, 150 campuses, 10,000 students, and 60 counties in the first year. That number doubles with the biennium.
But state funding is just one piece of the pie helping the Children’s Learning Institute to broaden its reach to help young developing minds reach their potential.
“Philanthropy has helped us extensively in Texas School Ready and in supporting parents and teachers,” explains Landry.
“For example, philanthropy is completely funding our extension of Children’s Learning Institute’s progress monitoring system from kindergarten to first and second grade. Our community partners are a critical component of our success.”