The Little School (Schools) of the 400 was an educational project developed in Texas by Felix Tijerina and the League of United Latin American Citizens during the 1950s. It sought to teach Spanish-dominant preschool children a speaking vocabulary of 400 basic English words so that they could overcome the language barrier and successfully complete the first grade. They would, it was urged, not have to repeat first grade, fall behind their classmates, become discouraged, and drop out at the alarming rate then prevalent among Mexican Americans in Texas public schools. The Little School came into being after Tijerina, a Houston entrepreneur and civic leader, was elected LULAC national president in June 1956. He knew the difficulties that Spanish-dominant children encountered because he had learned English with great difficulty as a youngster and thought that many of his own early problems in life had resulted from language deficiency. Adopting the pedagogy of language training prevalent during the time, Tijerina set out to provide English instruction for thousands of Mexican-American children.
The pilot project began in Ganado, Texas, during the summer of 1957, through the efforts of Isabel Verver, a local resident who had learned from a magazine article of Tijerina and his intentions. From his own funds Tijerina paid Verver a salary to recruit and teach a class of Ganado preschoolers. By the time the class began, he had obtained a list of approximately 400 basic English words from Elizabeth Burrus, a teacher in Baytown who had years of experience with Spanish-speaking youngsters. Because Verver's work in Ganado impressed Tijerina and his LULAC cohorts, they determined to establish Verver-style classes elsewhere in Texas beginning in the summer of 1958. To raise money for and direct these plans, Tijerina and LULAC established a nonprofit corporation called the LULAC Educational Fund, Incorporated. Under the auspices of the fund, classes began in seven Texas cities during the first week of June 1958, including Sugar Land, Aldine, Ganado, Edna, Brookshire, Rosenberg, Vanderbilt, Wharton, and Fort Stockton. These classes, officially called the Little School of the 400, were taught by local Mexican-American women. Initially, Tijerina paid their salaries with his own money. The Little Schools were dedicated in a formal ceremony in Sugar Land on June 23, 1958, attended by Governor Price Daniel, a friend and associate of Tijerina.
Although the Little School of the 400 succeeded in teaching the basic English vocabulary and received much positive publicity, Tijerina and LULAC were unable to raise the necessary funds to support the program to the extent they envisioned. Tijerina worked assiduously as a member of the Hale-Aiken Committee, a group of twenty-four Texans appointed by the state to study and make recommendations for reforming the Texas public school system, to ensure that preschool English-language training be one of the committee's recommendations. He labored to bring this recommendation to the attention of the public and government officials. Sponsors of the program offered it as House Bill 51 during the Fifty-sixth Legislature. Tijerina and fellow members of LULAC lobbied for its passage, and it was enacted in the spring of 1959. The resulting state-sponsored program, called Preschool Instructional Classes for Non-English Speaking Children, embodied the concept of the original Little School.
With the passage of HB 51, Tijerina's privately funded Little School classes dwindled, since they had served their purpose. About 1,000 children had been served, and the program inspired similar efforts in other states. In Texas the mission of the Little School carried over into the operation of the Preschool Instructional Classes for Non-English Speaking Children, which sought to teach children an expanded vocabulary of 500 basic English words. Tijerina and LULAC took it upon themselves to publicize the new state-supported classes among Mexican-American parents, as attendance was voluntary. In the summer of 1960 the program hired 614 teachers and served more than 15,000 students in 135 Texas school districts in eighty-one counties, most of which were in South Texas or along the border; some, however, were farther north, in Austin, Waco, Abilene, Temple, Dallas, and other localities with Mexican populations. In 1961, 158 school districts participated and hired 772 teachers to teach 18,000 students the basic English vocabulary. Students who went through these classes showed a remarkably higher success rate when they entered first grade than those who did not. By the mid-1960s the Preschool Instructional Program diminished because of the implementation of Head Start and other federal programs. Many observers believe that the Little Schools served as a model for Project Head Start, which was implemented during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Little School of the 400 aimed at fitting Mexican Americans into mainstream American society, reflected LULAC's longstanding commitment to fostering education as a key to Mexican-American advancement, and was counted by LULAC as one of its most important projects.