When the 2012-13 school year opens in the small industrial city of Perth Amboy, N.J., on the Raritan Bay across from Staten Island, N.Y., nearly every new kindergartner will be a graduate of the local school district's public preschool program.
In a city where 90 percent of public school students are Latino, and 61 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Perth Amboy has achieved something few communities with a majority-Hispanic student population have: a nearly perfect record for enrolling every eligible 4-year-old and many 3-year-olds in one of its preschool classrooms. In 2011-12, nearly 1,500 children took part in the 10,500-student school system's early-childhood program.
"The difference between how these kids come to us as 3-year-olds, oftentimes only speaking Spanish, and how they leave us as kindergarten-ready 5-year-olds is amazing," says Mary Jo Sperlazza, the supervisor of early-childhood programs in the Perth Amboy district. "We really focus on developing their oral language and other skills they need to be independent."
That early jump on schooling has been a cornerstone of this city's strategy for the past decade to boost student achievement districtwide. And it is part of a broader, New Jersey-wide effort to close the achievement gaps that exist between poor students and their affluent peers before they even enter kindergarten.
But nationally, children born into Latino families are less likely than their peers in other ethnic groups to take part in early-childhood programs that are designed to prepare youngsters in the knowledge and skills they need for school. That difference has far-reaching implications for Latinos' later academic success, early-childhood experts say.
"One of the main benefits of preschool that many Latino children lose out on is the exposure they would get to the types of expectations that they will find once they are in school," says Luisiana Melendez, a clinical assistant professor at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused exclusively on child development.
"It's extremely helpful to all children who come from outside the mainstream culture to learn the culture of school and what kinds of behaviors are appropriate."
Even though their presence in preschools has been on the uptick in recent years--owing in large part to the expansion of states' public prekindergarten programs--Latino children still remain the least likely of the major ethnic and racial groups to be in early-childhood classrooms, especially as 3-year-olds.
An analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center of preschool-enrollment data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (2008-2010), shows that, on average, 39 percent of Latino 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool over that three-year period, compared with 52 percent of African-American children and 48 percent of white children. Asian children, at 54 percent, had the highest rate of participation.
While there may be some cultural reluctance to send children as young as 3 to preschool, especially among parents who are immigrants, early-childhood experts say that factor is much less significant than others in explaining why Latino children lag in preschool participation.
"It's almost entirely an issue of access, and access to high-quality programs for Latino families," says W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "And even when there is availability, Latinos are like any parents who don't want to send their children to programs that are low-quality."
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