Leila Rojas loves school.

Since she became one of the first 4-year-olds enrolled in the Defense Department’s free universal preschool program, which launched last year at M.C. Perry Primary School at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan, Leila is thriving academically, socially and emotionally, said her mother Yadira Rojas.

“It’s been amazing for us,” Yadira Rojas said. “Leila talks about her teachers all the time, about how much they teach her, how nice they are, and how they play with her all the time.”

Now thousands more military children will get that same opportunity as the Defense Department prepares to open universal pre-kindergarten at nearly all primary schools on U.S.-run bases worldwide this fall.

The Department of Defense Education Activity, which manages schools on U.S. military bases around the world, launched its universal pre-K program in 2023 with a cohort of 65 4-year-olds at one school — M.C. Perry. The initiative’s success in Iwakuni has prompted DODEA to rapidly expand universal pre-K to another 79 primary schools, for a total of 80 locations, in the 2024-2025 school year.

The remaining 10 primary schools in the DODEA system will get pre-K over the next several years, pending construction and renovation.

Once pre-K classes have arrived in all 90 primary schools, an estimated 6,000 4-year-olds will be eligible, said DODEA spokesman Will Griffin. Any child who will be age 4 on or before Sept. 1 of a coming school year may enroll.

Parents can register through the DODEA Student Information System, but there’s no registration deadline because military families move throughout the year. Parents can visit dodea.edu/upk for more information and to enroll their child.

Families’ reactions to the fledgling program have been very positive, Griffin said.

“One of the struggles … with dual-military families or families with two working parents, service member and spouse, is the challenge in ensuring their kids are in a good situation, whether it’s child care, the Child Development Center, or some kind of educational opportunity,” Griffin said. “This is absolutely a win-win. They have the opportunity to know their child is in a good place, a nurturing, developmental environment that gets them started with a strong foundation to begin kindergarten.”

Yadira Rojas said she’s glad many more 4-year olds will experience what her daughter has at M.C. Perry.

“There’s no way to describe how safe I feel with my child being there,” Rojas said. “I love the teachers and everyone in the classroom. They keep me updated on my child and how she’s doing in the school.”

Rojas, who is employed at the Exceptional Family Member Program office on base, said the pre-K “has helped tremendously with child care. I feel the pre-K is preparing her for kindergarten. And … it gives us breathing room with the finances.”

The U.S. military will spend $75 million to fund universal preschool at the 80 locations next school year, Griffin said.

Supporters of publicly funded universal pre-K contend that starting high-quality education earlier can make a positive difference in a child’s future. Some states offer pre-kindergarten through a patchwork of different public and private programs and eligibility requirements.

The Defense Department operates 160 schools around the world, with about 66,000 students. The vast majority of military children attend schools outside the gate.

The 80 pre-K locations will be in schools with space to accommodate preschool classes, among other requirements. In general, restrooms must be accessible from the classroom; the classroom must be on the first floor of the building; a kitchen must be available for family-style dining and snacks; and the playground must have equipment designed for 3- to 5-year-old students, Griffin said.

Of the 10 schools that are slated to open universal pre-K later on, four are at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Those programs are expected to begin in the 2025-2026 school year.

The other six include: Parker Elementary School at Fort Novosel, Alabama; Ansbach Elementary School, Ansbach, Germany; Aukamm Elementary School and Wiesbaden Elementary School, Wiesbaden, Germany; Ramstein Elementary School, Ramstein, Germany; and Kleine Brogel Elementary School, Kleine Brogel, Germany.

Those last six require more extensive renovations or construction, Griffin said. DODEA hasn’t yet set a date to open universal pre-K at those schools.

Providing universal pre-K “means access and equity for all our eligible children,” said Lori Pickel, chief of the curriculum and instruction division at the DOD school headquarters. “Before, we’ve provided pre-K for some. Now the universal entry point for all children into DODEA will be 4 years old.”

Unlike at child development centers, “universal” pre-K is named as such because it has no priority enrollment. Signing up is voluntary and open to all students who meet the eligibility criteria.

The program offers full-day instruction for all, including at schools which previously offered half-day preschool.

Classes will use The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, Pickel said, which is research-based and addresses student learning on the development continuum, and helps teachers target instruction to meet individual students’ needs. It’s play-based curriculum and instruction, and is also aligned with the school system’s college and career ready standards for their K-12 students.

“What they explain to the parents, and what I see when I volunteer, is they use play-based learning,” said Yadira Rojas, who sometimes volunteers in the school. She said the pre-K classrooms have different play areas, such as a kitchen and a science area. For example, when the children learned about winter, they made snow with baking soda and shaving cream, connecting it to a science lesson.

“[Leila] loved that activity. We had to make snow at home, too,” Rojas said.

Like other DODEA classes in kindergarten through third grade, the maximum ratio of students to teachers is 18-to-1, said Michelle Alexander, early childhood branch program manager for curriculum and instruction at DOD school headquarters. Each classroom will have a certified teacher and a teaching aide.

The school systems have hired about 80% of the pre-K teachers needed, and are continuing to work on hiring educational aides. Griffin said the jobs are great employment opportunities for military spouses; Pickel and Alexander are both spouses of military retirees.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s here,” Alexander said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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