MERCEDES — Hundreds of four- and five-year-olds are now filling the hallways of Mercedes school district elementary schools for the first time as the district rolls out its pre-K to fifth grade model this school year.
After completing the construction of 32 new classrooms throughout its four elementary campuses, the district moved about 710 pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners from the Early Childhood Center to the elementary schools where they are now joining students in the first through fifth grades.
“It’s an initiative that will improve student academics and student preparation,” said Mercedes ISD Superintendent Daniel Treviño. “If there’s less movement or less mobility between buildings, research continues to tell us that the academic success will increase in these students, that’s one of our major reasons we moved to a pre-K to 5 concept.”
Planning for the transition had been going on for years as this was part of the $20 million 2013 bond issue, he said, which included the classrooms, the new athletic complex and other renovations to the high school campus.
Construction for the 32 classrooms started in late 2014 and was completed this year for about $3.5 million, Treviño said. At JFK Elementary, for example, a new wing houses eight classrooms intended for the littlest students, who attend half day for pre-K — divided in morning and afternoon sessions — and full day for kindergarteners.
“We expect our early childhood program to have a foundation into the older elementary years, if you may,” said Treviño as he visited a pre-K classroom at JFK Elementary. “So reading, recognition of numbers and letters, all of that is implemented here.”
The maximum number of students per classroom is 22, but these are kept at 17 or 18 students to facilitate learning, he said. The plan for now is to keep it at half-day pre-K program and later see if there is more funding to facilitate extending it to full day, since federal assistance only funds half day.
Part of the transition also included moving sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders to two middle schools — Sgt. William G. Harrell Middle and Sgt. Manuel Chacon Middle — due to the district outgrowing its junior high. The JFK campus used to house sixth graders prior to this year, but they had to vacate in order to move the elementary school to this location, Treviño explained.
“We just outgrew our junior high so we had to develop two middle schools,” he said. “We started sixth and seventh grade last year at one of the middle schools. … So this year we took the eighth-graders and split them in two, some go to Harrell Middle School and some to Chacon Middle School, so this year we started two full middle schools.”
The Early Childhood Center is now vacant except for one building that has been used for the last few years to house cosmetology and culinary arts courses for high school students. The next step will be to repurpose it for office use of administrators, he said, a phase that should be completed by August 2017.
“Our facility study indicated it’s a very mature building, so it’s not suited for early childhood,” he said. “It could be utilized for older students. Some of it thought we are going to turn into offices and try to consolidate our central curricula, our business office and our central administration in that building.”
Treviño said these new classrooms are expected to accommodate students for at least the next five years, even when considering yearly growth. At that point, further changes will be reassessed if necessary.
“We’ve had anywhere from a 1 to 2 percent increase every year in our pre-K and K,” he said. “It will either maintain or it will increase minuscully. We can accommodate these numbers for about the next five years.”