From the Principal’s Office: A Look at Pre-K in our Nation’s Capital

Jon Wheeler and his two children outside of their school in Washington, D.C.

For the past two years, my kids have attended school at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View (BMPV), a warm, nurturing and highly diverse public school in Washington, D.C. Our youngest started as a Pre-K 4 student in D.C.’s universal pre-kindergarten program, the most comprehensive public early learning program offered in any jurisdiction in the United States.

The students are taught in English and Spanish, which is particularly important and beneficial for our family – my wife and kids were born in Argentina and we are raising them to be bilingual, so having that extra support in school is particularly important for us.

The school’s diversity reflects that of the city – 63% of the students are English language learners and more than 38% are classified as “at-risk” due to family poverty levels. Less than 40% of the students are meeting or exceeding standards in English and Math, although the school is steadily increasing performance in annual student assessments, and recently achieved a four star rating according to the Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).

I wanted to learn more about how D.C.’s unique universal pre-K program has impacted students and their families from someone who has seen it change over the years – our school principal, Alethea Bustillo. Alethea started as a teacher at Bruce-Monroe in 1987 and has been principal of BMPV for the past 5 years. Here is what she had to say about the changes she’s seen:

What are the impacts you’ve seen at BMPV since the adoption of universal Pre-K in D.C.?

AB: Up until recently, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) did not have a comprehensive program. It was supported by Head Start, but there wasn’t as much emphasis from DCPS. Six years ago, there was no waiting list. It was open to everyone, but people weren’t choosing it.

Now, DCPS has become really clear about adopting curricula that are consistent across classes, and that has made a huge difference. That, along with coaching. They are now sending people out to the classroom to support the teachers professionally… The instructional focus has really increased.

Was that because the city really got behind it and put real money behind the program?

Yes. And comprehensive support, meaning curriculum, instructional coaching and family support. We have always had a high number of families that needed that support – now the early childhood office provides a person that really targets families [with kids in pre-K programs]… They will accompany families to the doctor, provide the support that they need for health care, and help them with different challenges that they are facing.

I know that schools like BMPV struggle with an opportunity gap. Have you noticed if the more rigorous Pre-K program affects that?

Definitely. A lot more kids are coming in with early literacy skills, and are ready to do the ‘work’ of kindergarten. Kids are coming in ready to read. Children without that – maybe they don’t know how to hold the book the right way, or don’t know how to count letters or know the difference between a letter and a word. When they come in without pre-literacy skills, it takes so much longer for the kindergarten teachers to get them ready to learn.

How do you continue to make it attractive for kids from high socio-economic backgrounds to stay in D.C. without pushing out the kids who really need it?

I think having experienced the change within the school, if we are welcoming and we are prioritizing the needs of kids, it benefits ALL kids. The more diverse our school has become, the more we have been able to improve outcomes for kids. Because it is good for our kids to be around kids who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. One of our values is ‘accept all people and help those in need’ – it is good to be around different kids – kids who have learning needs, kids who have behavior needs, kids that are excelling, it’s good to put them together to really build a relationship and build a community together. •

As a parent, I am so thankful of the excellent work that Ms. Bustillo and the rest of the faculty are doing to make BMPV a truly excellent learning environment for my kids and the hundreds of other kids who are part of our school community. They are a model for universal high-quality early childhood education, and I hope in the future more kids will have an opportunity to be a part of a program like ours throughout the country.

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Jon Wheeler joined Save the Children Action Network’s digital team in September, 2019. He lived in Argentina for 6 years where his children were born and is raising them in a bilingual household and public school.