Some students played in a sandbox. Others painted wooden macarenas. Another group enjoyed playing instruments. All of these activities look like play to an adult, but to the 4-year-olds in Courtney Campos’ pre-K class, it’s all about learning.

Learning looks different at that age, said Olayinka Ojo, Fort Worth ISD’s executive director of Early Learning. For pre-K students, play helps them remember their lessons. Experiences are what helps them retain knowledge.

Experts agree there are many benefits to starting school in prekindergarten versus kindergarten, such as unleashing their imagination, literacy exposure and socialization. Fort Worth ISD has the capacity for several hundred more pre-K students and is launching a campaign to try to increase enrollment in the grade.

Currently the district has over 5,000 seats, or spaces in the classrooms, available in pre-K with a little over 4,200 enrolled, Chief Academic Officer Marcey Sorensen said. But she said the district would find a way to make room for more if there was a need.

Want to see if your pre-K campus has space? Use this map from Fort Worth ISD

“We want to be at maximum capacity,” Sorensen said. “The research shows that the students who attend pre-K programs tend to perform better and stronger academically than those who don’t.”

Sorensen wants the message to parents clear: The district does not just have the seats for early education, but they are quality seats in classrooms manned with certified, trained teachers and instructional coaches using curriculum grounded in research.

Enrollment declined during the COVID-19 in the pandemic, Sorensen said, and since then the district has recovered about 900 students. 

Sorensen is confident that recovery will continue as parents learn more about the district’s pre-K programs.

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the school board approved a memorandum of understanding with the BrandEra, Inc. and education nonprofits Early Matters and the Commit Partnership to communicate with parents about pre-K registration. The agreement is part of a regional campaign, with at least 16 other school districts committing. 

Fort Worth ISD’s cost is $30,906.65 and the marketing will focus on an April 1, 2023, enrollment date for the 2023-23 school year.

In Texas, pre-K is funded as a half-day. Districts get an allotment per student, but that number is cut in half for pre-K students. Fort Worth ISD still offers full-day pre-K and picks up the extra cost the state does not cover, Ojo said. Allotment per student varies, but districts get around $11,000 per student, which means they get about $5,500 per pre-K student, Ojo said.

Why does pre-K matter?

A pre-K student plays at J.T. Stevens Elementary school. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report photo)

Many pre-K classrooms include what’s called a dramatic play center, Texas Christian University associate professor of early childhood learning Michelle Bauml said. For example, if a teacher reads a book about restaurants, the play center might be a toy kitchen.

Students then pretend they work in a kitchen and their friends are in a restaurant. They might take orders and pretend to burn the cookies. Bauml said at about 3 years old, children start to really develop their imagination. 

Going from hearing a book about restaurants to playing like they work in a restaurant is a connection to reading, she said, and makes it more meaningful.

“They engage in these conversations that are really imaginative, with rich dialogue,” Bauml said. “This taps into all those domains of cognitive, social, emotional, language, in some cases, physical, depending on if they’re practicing fine motor skills by writing down someone’s order on the menu.”

Bauml encourages parents to consider pre-K because of those developmental benefits. There also is the added benefit of exposure to things that they might not have at home, such as new friends, art supplies and books.

“Children’s brains are developing very rapidly in the first five years of life,” Bauml said. “So, when children are enrolled in a prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds, we find that their little brains are stimulated in all kinds of ways that they might not be outside of that school environment.”

J.T. Stevens Elementary School Principal Drew Farr said one of the major benefits of pre-K is the socialization of students. They’re learning how to play together, how to talk with their peers, how to share. 

Literacy begins then, Farr said. Students start recognizing sounds and letters in a pre-K classroom. Additionally, Farr mirrored what Bauml said about exposure to resources. When the Fort Worth Report visited the campus, Farr pointed out students in a music unit. 

The children were drawing different instruments, playing on toy guitars or pianos and painting macarenas. At the end of the unit, musicians will visit the campus and play real instruments for them. These are resources and lessons the children otherwise might not have access to.

The classes create a unique spark in learning, Farr said.

“It’s that magic spark of getting these little humans in a room together and igniting their curiosity,” he said. “They’re four year olds, so they are curious about everything, and they get excited, and it’s an authentic excitement about what they’re learning.”

What does a pre-K class look like?

A pre-K classroom relies heavily on hands-on experiences, because that’s how the students retain information, Ojo said. Even something as simple as Play-Doh is teaching students skills.

Pre-K students are still developing the muscles in their hands and fingers, and using Play-Doh helps strengthen those muscles so they have the ability to hold a pencil and learn to write, Ojo said.

Campos, who teaches pre-K at J.T. Stevens, said her class has structure, but still allows for  play learning. 

With read aloud time, the students are able to learn new vocabulary. When Campos taught the students about the meaning of audiences, they replied with, “We’re kind of like your audience.”

During the recent ice storm, students said they made ice cones that melted. That ties back to a melting and evaporation lesson Campos said the students did earlier in the year.

In her opinion, everyone should go to pre-K if they can.

“The best part for me is the growth and watching them grow,” Campos said. “And at the end, they’re so independent.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Early Matters and the Commit Partnership are education nonprofits.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen BartonEducation Reporter

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...