ON THE MONEY: Michelle Kinder runs a pre-K program that proves poor kids can succeed.

The Momentous Secret to Transforming Dallas Education

This woman knows it. (Hint: it involves 3-year-olds.)

Where 10th Street ends in Oak Cliff, just after it crosses Beckley Avenue, there’s a neatly kept one-story brick building with a Spanish tile roof. It houses part of the small, private Momentous School, which runs from pre-K through fifth grade. Inside, 3- and 4-year-olds go about the business of being small and cute. They play with toys, take naps, pass the brain hat when it’s someone else’s turn to answer a question posed to the class. On the surface, it all seems unremarkable.

But Momentous is actually doing critical work. The school is, in effect, conducting a longitudinal study of pre-K education and how a quality early learning program helps poor kids succeed. What’s happening here is instructive in a way that could transform Dallas. 

I spent a day touring the school at the end of last semester with Momentous’ executive director, Michelle Kinder, leading the way. The campus was once a YMCA and a church—the two have been connected—making it easy to get lost wandering its narrow halls. Every square inch of the school seems covered in photos and schoolwork. One long wall outside the library is itself part of the learning process. The texture of the wall’s lower portion (reachable by small-handed humans) changes dramatically every few feet. Students run their hands over it as they walk by to help wake them up and activate their minds.

Teachers and students didn’t flinch when our group of four entered classrooms. They’re used to being observed by staff and guests. Kinder, born in Guatemala and fluent in Spanish, is a UT graduate with a master’s in educational psychology who has been involved in children’s mental health for nearly two decades. She is tall and striking, with a fierce intelligence. She is quick to cite the latest research behind the school’s educational philosophies.

“Children growing up in lower-income homes are hearing 30 million fewer words by age 4 than children growing up in higher-income homes,” she says. “A pre-K program that engages parents creates a wraparound effect that turns this stat on its head. The argument for pre-K is not only an education issue, but it’s also an economic one and a moral one.”

About 87 percent of the kids at Momentous come from households with income below the poverty line. The median income in Texas is $50,740. The national poverty line for a family of four is drawn at $23,850. The median income of Momentous families: $30,125. (DISD’s poverty rate is 89 percent. The racial breakdown at Momentous shows a higher concentration of Hispanic kids. Also of note, Momentous runs a therapeutic preschool in Northwest Dallas for kids who’ve been expelled from other pre-K programs.) Momentous students start at 3 years old and have two years of pre-K before they start kindergarten. Between 2011 and 2013, an average of 86 percent of its graduates have gone on to higher education. As well, 90 percent of kids who’ve graduated from the school and gone on to college re-enrolled for their sophomore year, showing not just college readiness but a strong possibility for college completion. In fact, the school’s very first class is about to graduate from college with four-year degrees. Momentous checks in on them regularly to see how they’re doing.

Compare these figures to those in Dallas County, and you see how remarkable Momentous’ results are. Dallas County educates about a half-million K-12 children, roughly 10 percent of all students in Texas. Only half of its public school kids enter kindergarten prepared, meaning they play catch-up from day one. By third grade, only 35 percent of those kids read at grade level. By the time they take the ACT and SAT, only 14 percent prove college-ready. For Hispanics and African-Americans, it’s worse. Only 5 percent are college-ready.

Despite Momentous’ stunning success, the school is something of a secret except to educators. That’s partly because it gets most of its funding from the Salesmanship Club, the group that runs the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship every year, and the club only recently began to tell its story (and it changed the name of the school). Now Momentous is trying to help large, poor urban districts implement their own programs based on what the school has learned. It is running a pilot program with Fort Worth ISD in which teachers from the district observe Momentous classes, ask questions, and provide feedback. DISD has talked about working with Momentous on a larger scale in the future.

I sat in for a half-day of the FWISD training, and I talked to some Fort Worth teachers about what they saw in classes at Momentous. Some expressed doubts about the portability of the Momentous model—one African-American teacher from Fort Worth told me that “teaching in a predominantly African-American classroom is different on many subtle levels”—but overall the group agreed that best practices could be scaled up to large districts. 

Probably the most important lesson I took from the session was that Momentous gets buy-in from its parents. Parents have their own room in the school that they decorate. They hang on a wall a mission statement they’ve written about how they want the relationship between their family and the school to progress. Want to get choked up at 9 am on a weekday? Go read handwritten essays from parents trying to explain, often in broken English, what they hope a school can do for their child and their family, and how they, the parents, are going to ensure it happens. 

Which brings me to DISD and its efforts to implement a pre-K program like the one at Momentous. Right now, the biggest hurdle is money. The district is embarking on a campaign to find an additional $60 million a year to dramatically improve its pre-K program by 2020. Given the broad coalition of folks who understand how quality pre-K can turn around the fortunes of poor kids, you’d think funding such a plan wouldn’t be hard. Especially when one considers that research has shown that for every dollar society spends on quality pre-K for at-risk kids, the government saves up to $7, because those kids are less likely to grow up and abuse drugs, rely on welfare, or spend time behind bars. 

When I met last summer with DISD’s early education chief, Alan Cohen, he showed me how massive was the task before him. He opened an Excel spreadsheet that accounted for each pre-K classroom in DISD. For each one, there were 60 items that needed to be checked off before he could declare it a “quality” pre-K environment. They still aren’t all checked off, but they’re a lot closer than they were a few months ago. With that progress made, he went before the school board in November and presented a six-year plan to increase the quality, size, and scope of DISD’s pre-K offering. 

How important is it that taxpayers fund this plan? The DISD numbers Cohen threw out speak for themselves and are even worse than the ones in Dallas County as a whole. Only 38 percent of DISD kids start kindergarten ready. It’s vital that DISD increase that percentage substantially, because even though its pre-K program still needs work, a student who attends a DISD pre-K program is still 350 percent more likely to be kindergarten-ready than one who doesn’t.

Why not just make pre-K mandatory? For one thing, there isn’t enough capacity. If all the eligible kids living in the district (meaning poor kids) showed up for their pre-K classes, 2,700 students would not have a seat, because facilities aren’t geographically aligned with need. DISD leaves $60 million in state funds on the table every year, because it doesn’t have space aligned with need. So just as the district needs to fix its infrastructure to offer every child a seat, it also needs to increase the quality of instruction so that the money spent is more likely to show results.

That’s the underlying message of DISD’s pre-K strategy. At that November school board briefing, Cohen offered an ambitious, multilayered plan to get the program up to par. It was, according to the early education experts I’ve spoken with, an excellent plan, one that understands how every element relies on the next for support. Ignore or fail to implement one of them, and the whole plan falls apart. What DISD needs to do, then, is improve pre-K access for 3- and 4-year-olds; increase parent demand and buy-in to the program; train teachers more effectively; create better alignment between the school district and other organizations offering birth-to-kindergarten support and education (United Way, Mi Escuelita Preschools, ChildCareGroup). And the list goes on. Cohen’s plan has 30 to-dos if the district is going to create a high-quality early education program. There’s a lot of long-range planning. For example, the district can’t just train teachers in pre-K procedures; it should add 900 more teaching assistants to the program so there’s a pipeline for the next generation of pre-K teachers.

DISD trustee Dan Micciche has been stumping for more pre-K money for years. He knows that it really doesn’t matter how the board or state funds it, just that they fund it. “It’s the single most important thing we could be doing,” he says.

Every phase of DISD’s early education plan needs to be fully funded. There needs to be a groundswell of support for DISD’s efforts. Not just from DISD parents, but from everyone, because educating our poorest kids should be a priority for our entire city. Kids who don’t get quality pre-K education are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 60 percent less likely to attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested. 

I hear often from Dallasites who say they care about kids and DISD but don’t know what they can do to help because the problems in DISD seem so massive. Well, here’s something you can do: educate yourself on pre-K, especially on DISD’s attempts to improve it. Make that your passion. Send emails to your board representative, send them to your city council member, send them to your state rep. Every time you encounter an elected official in Dallas, ask, “What are you doing to get DISD’s pre-K program off the ground?” If that person says, “Well, that’s not really my area of—,” just say, “Sorry, not good enough. Answer my question. What are you doing?” Put fear into the elected. That’s the only way we can get something this big and expensive and necessary off the ground. Pre-K education has the power to change our city in a profound way. You can help make that happen.

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