Professor Laura Romo believes many low-income Latino children are at a significant educational disadvantage, something she learned firsthand — not from her expansive research — but from her own experiences.
“I shouldn’t have succeeded,” says Romo, the director of the Chicano Studies Institute and an associate professor in the School of Education at UC Santa Barbara. “I had everything against me.”
Romo says many low-income Latino kids simply do not receive information and support compared to their classmates. Many Latino high school students might not get adequate counseling or college advice, but Romo argues the unequal playing field starts much earlier – when the children are first entering school.
That’s why she wrote a grant proposal to give children like these a background in health and biology, which was recently granted by the National Institute of Health in a $1.2 million Science Education Partnership Award.
“It’s apparent children benefit from early learning experiences prior to kindergarten,” she says, noting that low-income Latino children have lower reading and math scores.
The UC Santa Barbara program will include a science curriculum focused on biology to enhance the children’s understanding of health behaviors.
“We tell kids to wash their hands and eat their vegetables,” Romo says. This means children are told this will keep them healthy but adults don’t put a rationale into why it should be done, she adds.
“Children have the capacity to understand that it’s important to wash your hands because germs live there and you don’t want to eat with dirty hands because it will get on your food and make you sick,” she says.
This type of education will help teach children to generate explanations, and to develop critical thinking skills.
“Skills like question asking and causal explanatory skills are less common in the Latino culture,” Romo says.
The developmental psychologist, whose research focuses on the Latino population, has more in the pipeline. Her research will be published in major journals soon, including a look at a joint Latina mother and daughter programs to discuss sexual health, as well as programs to increase communication regarding HIV transmission. Romo also has another research paper on dating violence in the Latina community.
“Being at risk for pregnancy and not getting good college advice – I was one of these girls facing these challenges.” says Romo.
“Now I want to help Latina girls in the community.”
In the meantime, Romo hopes her preschool program helps put Latino children on the path to healthy intellectual development and academic success.