MIAMI, FL – When Doris Paredes gave birth to her daughter in Miami nearly two years ago, she felt frightened and anxious over how she would manage work, child care, and eventually a preschool education, as a single mother with no relatives in the country.
Paredes was a school teacher in her native country, Paraguay, and she knew that an early childhood education for her daughter, Zoe would be vital for her future. “Even during my pregnancy I was feeling frustrated thinking I wouldn’t be able to afford preschool for my daughter,” said Paredes.
Paredes is not alone. According to a new report by the Southern Education Foundation, in the school year that ended in 2011, a majority of public school children in 17 states – or one-third of the nation’s 50 states - were from low income families and eligible for free or reduced lunches. Thirteen of the 17 states were in the South, and the remaining four were in the West. And in many cases, these children are beginning kindergarten already behind their peers, whose parents were able to afford a preschool education.
Without the advantages of early childhood education, among other factors, these students are more likely to drop out of high school and never attend college, according to the study. This shift is also reflected on national standardized tests where schools with a majority of low income children are scoring extremely low, bringing down the national average in comparison to other countries.
To counter this growing trend, education advocates are stressing the importance of good quality early childhood education.
But while Latinos are the largest minority group in US public schools, they have the lowest enrollment in early education programs. Although Latino children make up one in four children under the age of 5, less than half of Latino children are enrolled in any early learning program - and not all are part of a good quality program.
Paredes was lucky to find a learning center called Kidco Center One, which provides early childhood education to many low-income families at a minimal cost. Kidco and many other preschools in low-income areas of Miami-Dade county are able to do this with funding from The Children’s Trust, an organization that receives money from property tax payers to help finance educational services in predominantly low-income areas. There are 8 similar organizations in Florida. Other states, such as New Mexico, have shown interest in emulating these organizations unique to Florida.
The Children’s Trust stresses the importance of not keeping kids at home until kindergarten and the need for an early learning experience so when kids start kindergarten they are on par with other students.
“In the Latino community oftentimes there is a resistance to putting their children in child care centers because they think kids might be better off at home with ‘abuela’- so if the first early experience is in kindergarten, they will be behind,” said Emily Cardenas of the The Children’s Trust.
Cardenas also stressed that it is not just finding a preschool; it has to be high quality, which is sometimes difficult to find because teachers are not required to have college degrees or even high school diplomas.
“It’s important that families ask what the qualifications of the staff are -some of these folks are no more capable of teaching a child than someone you would meet at a fast food restaurant,” she explained.
The Children’s Trust provides scholarship opportunities for teachers to go back to school, take courses and become qualified in early education.
Former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence left a 35-year newspaper career in the 1990s to become a national leader in education advocacy. A civic assignment he was involved in looking at education in the next millennium “was such a wake-up call that I decided to “retire” so I could devote my full time energies to the future of children and learning,” said Lawrence.
He said that the wisest possible path the country could take toward public education reform “won’t be in the fourth grade or the seventh grade or in high school. The wisest possible investment would be in those times that begin before birth until age 8.” Lawrence said this could contribute to far more to a child’s success and the chances of that child graduating from high school and enrolling in college.
Preschool education has become so fundamental that the Obama administration has called for a comprehensive plan to provide a preschool education to all 4 year olds.
“Far too many Latino children start kindergarten already behind their peers,” stated Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy.
According to Rodriguez, research has shown that the early years in a child’s life—when the human brain is forming—represent a critically important opportunity to develop a child’s full potential, especially for children from low-income families.
Peggy McLeod, Deputy Vice President for Education and Workforce Development at the National Council of La Raza pointed out other obstacles for Latino parents relate to access. For example, it is more difficult to reach a high quality school in the Southwest of the US where distances are far and public transportation may run slow. Language barriers are another issue, where immigrant parents don’t know what resources are available to them.
“Early education is really important, but it’s not the silver bullet. It’s not where it ends. It’s where it begins,” said McLeod.
Education advocates like McLeod also stress it is not just a matter of attending school. More is needed to encourage Latino families to read at home to their children from the time they are babies – something Paredes has been doing with Zoe since she was in her belly.
“I read to her every night… .I think that’s why she loves books so much and always has one in her hands,” Paredes said.
In the meantime, advocates and proponents of quality preschool say the investment is well worth it – and stress the importance of expanding opportunity across the country.
“Children who attend these programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, and succeed in their careers than those who don’t,” said Rodriguez.