Sunday, April 19, 2009

Little pre-K access for Latinos

Little pre-K access for Latinos

Kids behind at start of school, advocates say

By Margaret Ramirez

Chicago Tribune reporter

April 15, 2009

Inside Casa Infantil Head Start in Logan Square, teacher Janeth Medellin called on her students to form a circle and then started singing a bilingual version of the "Good Morning" song.

"What day is today?" she asked 4-year-old Gustavo. "¿Qué día es hoy?"

When he hesitated, she touched his shoulder and said, "It's OK to answer in Spanish." With that, he shouted in English, "Monday!"

By using bilingual preschool curriculum and providing financial assistance, the Casa Infantil Head Start program is confronting one of the most debated issues in early childhood education: how to raise academic levels of low-income, Latino children.

Latino families with young children constitute a significant portion of the nation's population and future workforce, but several studies show those children are less likely to enroll in early education programs because of various barriers including language, cost, transportation and a shortage of pre-kindergarten spots in poor neighborhoods. For those and other reasons, Latino children lag well behind white children in reading and math skills when they start kindergarten.

Last month, President Barack Obama noted the stubborn gap between white students compared with Latinos and African-Americans, and said the key to raising academic achievement is investing in early childhood education programs—what he called "the first pillar" of education reform. Obama said $5 billion in stimulus funding would be used to grow Head Start programs, expand child care and do more for children with special needs. The president also called for Early Learning Challenge Grants to reward initiatives that raise the quality of pre-K programs.

"Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education despite compelling evidence of its importance," Obama said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "This isn't just about keeping an eye on our children, it's about educating them."

But debates cut different ways on the best way to improve the underfunded, fragmented early childhood education system. In Illinois, a hodgepodge of early childhood education options exist, including federally funded Head Start, state-funded Preschool for All, private schools and center-based programs operated by non-profit organizations.

Although the reasons for low attendance among Hispanics in preschool programs have not been firmly established, a major factor is a lack of programs in poor neighborhoods. A recent study by the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics surveyed programs in Los Angeles and Chicago and found an overall shortage of pre-kindergarten slots in Hispanic neighborhoods.

Sylvia Puente, executive director for the Latino Policy Forum, said the shortage of preschool programs in Chicago stems from demographic shifts where neighborhoods dominated by older whites became populated by immigrants and a baby boom of younger Latino families. To discuss the issue, the Latino Policy Forum gathered leading educators, school administrators and child-care providers at National-Louis University last month.

"What has happened in the city is that you saw the older white ethnic enclaves become Latino. So, there was limited infrastructure of facilities because it was an older, aging demographic. As the Latino population has moved into those communities, there hasn't been the accompanied capital infusion to build space," Puente said.

Some Chicago child-care providers who primarily serve Latinos said many families are unaware that programs exist or don't understand the value of early childhood education. Others said enrollment requirements often become a barrier for low-income families. Celena Roldán, director of child care for Erie Neighborhood House, which serves about 400 children at four centers, said income verification for some child-care programs disqualifies immigrants who often live together in one home but don't share income.

"Sometimes you have multiple incomes going to one household because there are so many people living there and it appears the family is getting a large income. That's usually not the case," Roldán said.

Even when programs exist in impoverished neighborhoods, early childhood experts said other obstacles remain that delay learning for Latino children. Language is perhaps the most significant issue for recent immigrants, increasing the demand for bilingual teachers that surpasses the low supply.

Parental interaction also is critical, said Eugene Garcia, vice president at Arizona State University and a member of Obama's education transition team. Yet research shows that parental interaction is less likely to happen in Latino homes where both parents work full time and have not completed high school.

"We need interaction in the home," said Garcia, chair of the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics. "Latino children are behind in communicating in the complex way that schools demand."

In response, some social service agencies in Chicago have developed strategies specifically designed to encourage more parental interaction in early childhood education. Casa Central, the social service agency that runs Casa Infantil, also offers a home-based Head Start program for recent immigrants. During weekly visits, a preschool teacher comes to the home to review lessons with the child while guiding the parent on how to participate.

"The home-based program is really about showing the parent how to be their child's first educator," said Ellen Chavez, director of early childhood development programs for Casa Central, which also helps African-American, Chinese and Polish children. "Even if you don't speak English, there are things you can teach your child to prepare them for school."

Ana Solano, who immigrated from Mexico five years ago, was unaware of the importance of early childhood education until the home-based visits began for her 4-year-old daughter, Ana. She said she immediately noticed a remarkable difference between Ana and her older son, Juan Carlos, who had struggled in kindergarten. "I just thought he would pick everything up in school. With Ana, I see how much it helps and how much better off she will be," she said.

As the Obama administration prepares to release more details of its education plan, providers are hopeful it will recognize the different models needed to bolster academic achievement among Latino children. "We have limited dollars, so the focus is on quality and prioritizing," said Reyna Hernandez, research associate with the Latino Policy Forum. "We want to make sure that whatever the baseline is, that it takes into consideration these needs of Latino children."

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

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