By Alberto Ochoa
At our recent San Diego County Latino Education Summit, held on October 13, 2007, I talked with over 100 parents, teachers and other community members on the high rate of student dropout in San Diego and the State. They all had different things to say about the existing challenges facing K-12 education, but the one thing everybody agree on was the need for effective pre-kindergarten that gets our children to ready to start school, to socially and academically learn and be ready to read.
The recent results of the state standardized tests and high school exit exams confirm what education activists have known for years: Latino and African -American students are significantly behind their white and Asian classmates in educational attainment and academic achievement. Many Latino children enter school well behind other students and stay behind throughout their educational careers.
This troubling reality is not new. In fact, the persistence of this achievement gap reinforces the need to invest in proven solutions to help Latino and low-income students succeed. The future productivity of our state’s workforce depends largely on how well we educate all of our children, especially Latinos the fastest-growing segment of California’s population.
Pre-kindergarten is one of the most promising approaches to address the readiness gap before it becomes the achievement gap. Effective pre-K programs show substantial gains for Latino children. For example, test scores for Latinos in Oklahoma’s pre-K program improved 54 percent, reflecting sharp improvement in both cognitive development and language skills that outpaced gains by other ethnic groups (Public Policy Institute in Georgetown University, 2005). Furthermore, pre-kindergarten can give our English learners the solid foundation in language that helps them succeed in school.
Pre-kindergarten provides that crucial leg up at the beginning of children’s educational career that will improve their chances of success in the K-12 system and beyond. Long-term studies of effective pre-kindergarten programs demonstrate that students who attend pre-K are more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not attend pre-K. If we are serious about boosting the achievement and education attainment of our Latino and low-income students, we must start early and invest in effective pre-kindergarten.
Despite the benefits that Latino children derive from effective pre-kindergarten programs, they remain underserved by the existing pre-k system. Preschool enrollment rates for Latinos are low in San Diego and across the state. Latino families are the least likely of any group to send their children to preschool programs, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research.
The low preschool participation among Latino children is not because Latino parents do not support preschool. There is strong support for pre-kindergarten programs among California’s ethnic parents, including Latino parents, a 2006 California poll by New America Media found. However, the poll found that Latino parents were most likely to report they could not find affordable, quality pre-K programs in their neighborhood. There are also long waiting lists at many publicly funded pre-K programs.
We must focus on increasing access to effective pre-kindergarten programs. San Diego County is on the right track with its Preschool For All demonstration project, which is making free and effective pre-kindergarten programs available to 4 year olds living in the six communities of Escondido, Lemon Grove, National City, San Ysidro, South Bay, and Valley Center/Pauma. But we must go further. Children in other areas of San Diego and California would also benefit from pre-K. We need a statewide commitment to educating all our children Latino, African American, Asian and white starting with effective pre-k programs that prepare them for success in kindergarten and beyond.
Ochoa is a professor at San Diego State University, in the Policy Studies in Language and Cross-Cultural Education Department and Co-Chair of the San Diego County Latino Coalition on Education.