June 20, 2008

Latino children are behind in preschool enrollment

New study finds that minority and low-income children are least likely to attend quality preschool programs.

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Children who attend preschool are better prepared to enter kindergarten. They have better grades in the following years. They’re more likely to graduate from college.

“There are many benefits children receive when they attend preschool,” said Stella Ohnersorgen, director of the Child Development Center at the San Ysidro School District. “They acquire many skills they use when they start kindergarten.”


Students at the preeschool at Sunset Elementary School in San Ysidro learn many skills in the classroom.

A new study on preschool education in California released this week by a nonprofit research organization confirms Ohnersorgen’s assertitions but the study also found that California children who could benefit most are least likely to be in quality preschool, especially Latino children.

RAND Corporation researchers found that children from lower-income families, children whose mothers have less education and Latino children are significantly less likely than others to attend center-based early care and education programs, even though they are among the groups that consistently show a lack of readiness for school.

The findings are from the latest report in an ongoing research project intended to outline the adequacy and effectiveness of preschool education in California. Ethnic media from California, including La Prensa San Diego, were part of a briefing this week where highlights from the study were released.

“It is now the norm for California’s 3- and 4-year-olds to spend at least part of their day in a center-based early care and education program,” said Lynn Karoly, the study’s lead author and an economist at RAND. “Unfortunately, relatively few of the centers we studied provide the types of high-quality early learning experiences that can help prepare children to succeed when they enter school.”

Their top findings include challenges and opportunities for California’s preschools:

• The children who could benefit most from preschool are least likely to be in it.

• At best, 15 percent of those who could benefit most are in high-quality programs that prepare them for success in K-12.

• Just under half of 3 and 4 year olds in economically disadvantaged families are in center based preschool programs of any quality, compared to 70 percent of those in more well-off families.

• Forty-five percent of children whose mothers have less than a high school degree are in center-based preschools, compared to 80 percent of children whose mothers have a graduate or professional degree.

• Mexican-American, African-American and low income parents reported the most difficulty finding the care they wanted, according to the parent survey.

• Quality falls short across the board. There are no demographic or socioeconomic groups that, on average, are in high-quality programs that prepare them for kindergarten.

“These findings should be useful to policymakers who are interested in improving the quality of early care and education programs in California,” Karoly said. “This study provides the best information to date on the quality shortfalls that affect all groups of preschool-age children in California, and the missed opportunity that results from the low rates of participation among groups of children who stand the most to gain from a high-quality early learning experience.”

The San Ysidro School District’s preschools always encourage parents, in their majority of Mexican origin, to enroll their children in these programs.

Monica Tamayo, one of the preschool teachers at Sunset Elementary School in San Ysidro, said that thanks to these programs, children are able to learn English faster.

“The sooner they attend school, the better for children,” she said. “They interact with other children their age, they learn new things.”

Martin Charles is so pleased with what his three-year-old son Maximiliano has learned in preschool, that Charles is a volunteer in his child’s class at Sunset.

“Teachers pay a lot of attention to my son here,” he said. “They’ve helped him become a better student, a better kid.”

Ohnersorgen said that children ages three and four can enter preschool. She also said that the San Ysidro School District offers a special class for toddlers, starting at one year and a half of age.

To find a high-quality preschool, these are a few of the things parents should look for, according to RAND Corporation researchers:

1. What kind of training and education do the teachers have?

2. Are the teachers and kids engaged in conversations?

3. Can teachers tell you not only what they are doing, but why?

4. Does the program use a curriculum to guide learning?

5. Does the program welcome and involve families?

6. Does the space have separate learning centers (reading, art, dramatic play, writing, etc.) and a well-equipped playground?

The study, “Prepared to Learn: The Nature and Quality of Early Care and Education Experiences for Preschool-Age Children in California,” is available at www.rand.org.

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