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From the Beginning… There Needs to be Light!

By Mayra Rodríguez Valladares

March 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003
HISPANIC MAGAZINE.COM. All rights reserved. 

Aurora Valladares, a south Texas mother of six, remembers trying to raise her kids in the late 60s and 70s. "Pre-school?" she asks, her dark eyes widening, "I did not know English. I spent all day cooking and cleaning. Where would I find the time to find out about early education programs? How could we afford it?"

The experience of this petite and energetic Mexican immigrant is not one that has improved with time. It repeats itself today among other Latino immigrant parents, in Texas and all across the nation. Lack of knowledge or money prevents thousands of Latino children from ever attending early education programs.

Statistics are staggering. Almost one in five children under the age of 5 in the United States is Latino. And one in three of those Latinos lives under the poverty line. Teachers, experts and community leaders agree that it is almost impossible for Latino children to break the cycle of poverty unless their education starts at a very early age. If it does not, they are already at risk of dropping out of school and destined for a life of low-paying menial jobs. While efforts exist to provide children with early education through

programs such as Head Start, the majority of Latino children often do not enter schools until kindergarten or even first grade. By then, they are behind their peers; more so, if they do not speak English.

Economics cannot be ignored

According to research by Bowling Green State University’s professors Jenny van Hook and Kelly Stamper Balistreri, Hispanics in California present a clear example of what happens to Latino children all across the country. Because "they are the largest immigrant group and tend to be poor and to be residentially segregated ... it is nearly impossible for school districts in Hispanic areas not to be mostly poor, mostly minority, and mostly non-English-speaking."

They add that these problems have led scholars in the field of education of immigrants to argue that schools in these poor and residentially segregated neighborhoods "produce inequality rather than equalize opportunity." This is particularly grave for small children. The authors found that California children who attend "low-status, high-minority schools learn less than children who attend integrated schools," particularly in schools where the concentration of minority students is prevalent.

Education has to begin early

"At pre-school age is when children can learn the most. They are like sponges!" explains Sugatha Alladi, an experienced teacher of children between the ages of 2 to 6 at a Montessori school in Somerset, New Jersey.

Ynez Cruz, who taught kindergarten to eighth grade students for 34 years in Dade County in Florida, contends that in kindergarten it was immediately evident who had been to pre-school or not. "Children who went to pre-school had an advantage," recalls Cruz. "They came with English, had the ability to manage pencils and paper, and were already adapted to a school environment."

She found that the children who had not been in pre-school programs took a long time to adjust to being in the kindergarten. "The difference was still noticeable in the first grade. If a child had a high IQ and had a rich learning environment at home, then they could catch up. Most of the time, however, this does not take place. About 75 percent of the children who had not attended pre-school carried that disadvantage for a long time."

According to Early Child Initiative Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer Ana Sejeck, "if a kid has a good caregiver who is dedicated to taking them to all sorts of things, like libraries, music programs, and settings for children to interact with each other, then the child will probably succeed as well as his/her peers who have been to a pre-school

program. Unfortunately, reality is that most parents have to work and hence cannot give children structured education and stimulus." Consequently, "a child with no early education is already at a disadvantage in the first grade. Parents need to understand that children have to be read to, that they have to play with other children, be fed properly, and they have to have health care."

Parents’ education and financial status are critical

The reasons why Latino children do not attend early education programs are numerous. "Pre-school (in Florida) is usually not free," Cruz says. "In Dade County, some of these programs can cost $65—$100 a week. For some families, especially if they have more than one child of pre-school age, those fees are unaffordable." When it comes to private school pre-school education, the cost can be prohibitive. In New York, Alicia Meléndez, a Puerto Rican mother, paid over $8,000 a year, or $211 a week, for her son Paulo to attend a private school for a 38 week, four hours a day program. "Had I wanted to send him more hours," explains Meléndez, "it would have been even costlier."

Significant lack of knowledge about early education also exists. Parents often confuse daycare centers for pre-school. "Child care is not necessarily pre-school, and even some pre-schools are not teaching children anything," says Alladi. "A good pre-school in one with a solid curriculum." Sejeck agrees. "Often child-care centers are not accredited. In Dade County, there are 1,400 licensed day care centers, but only 106 are accredited." Sejeck explained. "I did not know when I was putting my kids in day care, that there is a big difference (between programs). Now I say to parents, ‘Do not just warehouse your children in a center.’ "

Cultural issues also affect parental attitudes about such programs. Dr. Linda Espinosa, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in New Brunswick, New Jersey, contends that early education programs "need to make a concerted effort to make families comfortable; otherwise, families feel alienated." Word of mouth reputation is what sells or destroys a program. "We made our program family friendly." The program now has a long waiting list.

According to Espinosa, Latino families have a very difficult time "letting go of their 3-year-olds to strangers who often speak another language and come from a different culture. Anglo middle-class families, on the other hand, accept that kids need to go to pre-school to get socialized." There is much to be done to convince the parents of Hispanic children of the benefits of pre-school programs and of the adverse consequences of a late start in school.

Head Start makes a good effort, but the majority of Latinos are not covered

Head Start, a national program created in 1965, provides early education to children under 5. Dr. Wade Horn, Director of the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explains that each of his department’s programs "help provide services to the most vulnerable children. Clearly economic disadvantage causes vulnerability. Disproportionately, Hispanic children are poor, so as a matter of course we provide services to them." He also stated that "in some areas we have specific outreach (programs) for Hispanic children. In others, we cover them through our regular programs that target lower income families and children."

Head Start also runs a program for migrants, which covers 37,000. Many, if not most of them, are Latino. Providing for migrants is a "unique challenge because families are moving according to agricultural cycles." Head Start has made an effort to model some programs to try to serve these children. "One is a program that moves with families as they move for agricultural opportunities. The other model is one where centers (are placed) in areas where migrant families might live."

The Administration for Families and Children recognizes the need to carry out specific outreach for Hispanics. Horn states that the Administration is involved "in public education and invariably in English and Spanish public service announcements." The Administration has also had Hispanic forums about child support issues and has tried to reach out to Hispanic media. He admits, however, that despite the Administration’s best intentions, more effort needs to focus on reaching Latino families and children.

While the Latinos served by Head Start constitute 30 percent of all the children in the program, they only represent 19 percent of the 1.2 million poor Latino children who need to be covered. This means that 80 percent of Latino children who also cannot afford any other kind of early education programs are not going to school until they are 5 or 6 years old, by which time their peers have had exposure to the English language, engaging in educational activities, and interacting with children outside their families.

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