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How Julián Castro Bet on 4-Year-Olds to Transform San Antonio

August 18, 2017
Erick Trickey

Jennifer Martinez Young’s 8-year-old daughter, Addison, blitzes through books: Lisa Yee’s DC Super Hero Girls novels, the Rainbow Fairies and Mariella Mystery series. Just starting third grade, she’s reading at almost a sixth-grade level. This year, at Addison’s former elementary school, fifth-graders will read a story she wrote last year, as a model.

Addison’s mother credits her pre-school, San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA North Education Center, for inspiring her love of reading. Addison is still pen pals with Mrs. Ashworth, her preschool teacher. “She says she taught her so much,” Martinez Young, 37, says.

In 2013, Addison was one of the first 700 4-year-olds to enroll in San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program, which provides high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten for disadvantaged 4-year-olds. It’s the brainchild of former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who went on to serve as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Since then, Pre-K 4 SA has posted impressive results. Its kids start below the national average in cognition, math and literacy, and finish the year above average. Its founders have become evangelists for the idea that early-childhood education is key to giving poor kids an equal chance to succeed in school and life. The goal, says Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO, is nothing less than “to change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.”

It’s an unusual way to transform a city. Often mayors get behind mass transit or downtown redevelopment to improve their cities, not educational play for 4-year-olds. But the need for pre-K is a hotly debated topic around the country. A few cities and states have adopted universal pre-K, while others are building toward it. Texas is not one of them. Castro’s initiative represents an ambitious but controversial example of a city jumping to fill a void left by its state government. “The best way to make sure a young person gets ahead is to make sure she never gets behind in the first place,” says Castro.