For Minorities, Preschool Narrows Ed Gap

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Celia Rubi Medina is quick to raise her hand when her teacher asks about the meaning of the word, metamorphosis.

“It’s when the little caterpillar becomes a butterfly,” says the 4-year-old girl, a Head Start student at Tracy Elementary in the Baldwin Park Unified School District (BPUSD).

The school is located in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, in a predominantly working class community. More than 86% of the students receive free or reduced lunch (compared with 56.7% in the state’s general student population).

“We don’t have a lot of money, but we strive to (give) the best education for our children,” says Gema Morales, mom of Celia Rubi and her twin sister, Gema Mariana. They are two of the more than 1,600 students attending preschool at Tracy, thanks to the BPUSD’s consistent efforts to get funding for the educational cycle.

“We have been providing early childhood education since 1942,” states Froilan Mendoza, associate superintendent of BPUSD, emphasizing that the district takes early education very seriously.

Dodging the effects of financial swings over the years has been challenging, but even during the educational cutbacks of recent years, BPUSD has managed to keep open the same number of preschool slots. The 1,635 children attending preschool this year represents a 235 increase over the last school year.

“State funding cuts eliminated 20 slots, but we were able to fund an additional hundred through the federal Head Start program,” said Ricardo Rivera, director of Early Childhood Education at BPUSD, noting that each year brings a new challenge in balancing federal and state funds, and ensuring that the net number of students served is not diminished.

Glovin Salido, mother of a 4-year-old girl who also attends preschool at Tracy, emphasizes that for families like hers what matters most is to having an option for quality preschool, wherever the funds come from.

“If I had to pay, my daughter would’ve missed this important phase of her education,” said Salido, noting that her husband is a minimum wage construction worker.

“In this area, private preschool costs about $700-a-month, something we just can’t afford,” she said.

Closing the gap
Parents, like the overwhelming majority of education experts, are convinced that early childhood education plays a crucial role in narrowing the achievement gap for minority and low-income children.

“I have no doubt that my daughter is excelling in kindergarten because she attended preschool,” says Sasha Alvarenga, mother of Tirsa who, after two years of preschool at Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), is now a student at 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). After being diagnosed with autism at 3, Alvarenga said, Tirsa was categorized as a special education student.

“She didn’t speak at all, and the doctor told me she wouldn’t be able to learn in a regular classroom,” Alvarenga said.

Alvarenga said she witnessed first hand the transformation of her daughter during the first months of preschool.

“By the time she entered kindergarten, the autism diagnosis had been withdrawn, and she is now one of the advanced students in her class,” she said.
LAUP does not maintain data about the academic performance of its preschool children in subsequent years. But studies show its benefits.

Some of those benefits are still evident 30 years later, according to the findings of a study announced in late January by the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

The study started in the 70’s with 111 children (98% African-American) and to the present has been able to follow the evolution of 101 of them. The research — which provides new data for the prestigious Abecedarian Project led by the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC, suggests that the participants were four times more likely to have earned a college degree (23%, compared to 6% in a similar group where children did not receive early education).

“This achievement applied to both boys and girls, an important finding given the current low rate of college graduation for minority males in our country,” said Elizabeth Pungello, scientist at FPG Institute and co-author of the study.

Research on the Chicago Child-Care Centers initiative, published in mid-2011, also emphasizes the positive effects of early education. The study, conducted among 1,400 low-income African American children who were observed for 28 years, show an increased high school graduation rate (50% compared to 39%), lower participation in special education (14% versus 25%), and better results on standardized tests of language and mathematics.
Among Hispanics, data from the Universal Pre-K program in Oklahoma conducted during the early 2000s by the Center for Research on Children in the United States (CROCUS) at Georgetown University, indicates that Latino preschoolers benefited the most from quality preschool. While all students showed improvements in letter and word recognition (+52%), spelling (+27%) and mathematical problems (+21), the progress among Latino children was even higher, at +79%, + 39 and + 54%, respectively.

Silvia de la Rosa, a mother of two girls, aged 3 and 1 year, isn’t surprised by these findings. “For me it is just common sense. If there were more studies, there would be more evidence showing that the academic success of disadvantaged children starts in preschool.”

However, this resident of Pacoima — one of the poorest districts in the San Fernando Valley — fears her daughters will be among the 87% of California’s low-income children without access to quality early education. The $517 million in cuts to child development services that Governor Jerry Brown outlined in his budget proposal, issued in January, could eliminate access for another 62,000 children.

De la Rosa is actively looking for a place where her eldest daughter can attend preschool this coming fall, but so far she has not found any openings.
“I can’t afford a private preschool, and the only one I have found that’s free is far away from home,” says De la Rosa. As a single mom with no driving license, she finds it very challenging to travel everyday by bus with two young children.

For now, she occasionally uses the services of a neighbor who charges her $30 per day, when De la Rosa gets work cleaning residential homes.
“She is a very nice lady, and loves my daughters. But, what can she teach them, when she didn’t have the chance to finish elementary school herself?” says De la Rosa, convinced that the achievement gap begins long before low-income children start school.

This article originally appeared in New America Media.

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May 10, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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