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."
Related to access, the cost of preschool is often a major barrier for Latino families, as it is for some other population groups that often have economic disadvantages.
The vast majority of preschool programs in the United States are privately run and cost more than many Latino families can afford, says Melendez. Also, many private preschools offer only part-time programs--an unfavorable arrangement for families with two working parents.
At the same time, many Latino families with two working parents find ways to juggle schedules so that parents can take turns caring for young children, or, as is often the case, the mothers opt to stay home with their children, says Melendez. She is in the early stages of studying the growing participation of Latino children in a preschool program in Evanston, Ill.
Even in communities where there may be more-affordable public options readily available, families--particularly those headed by immigrant parents--may not be aware that their children are eligible to take part, she adds.
"Because of language issues, immigrant families tend to be less aware of these programs and that their children are eligible to participate in them," Melendez says. "And if they do know about the resources available to help them, such as subsidies, they might be less willing or able to provide the types of documentation that the programs require for enrollment."
Some parents who do not speak English may be wary about enrolling children as young as 3 in programs that do not have Spanish-speaking teachers or staff members, and in cities and towns where immigrant communities are newer, finding bilingual preschool workers can be hard, Melendez says.
"Any parent would be hesitant to drop off their young kids with a provider who they can't communicate with," says Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group for Hispanics. "I think a key piece of improving the quality options for Latinos is growing the number of providers who speak Spanish."
Access to preschool is less of an issue for parents in Perth Amboy, which, despite its poverty, has invested heavily in its early-childhood programs over the past decade.
The city is one of 31 high-poverty communities in New Jersey that have been under a state supreme court mandate since 1998 to provide free, high-quality preschool to poor children and have received generous state funding to do so.
To comply with that ruling in the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance case, New Jersey dramatically expanded its public preschool program.
Over the past decade, Perth Amboy's preschool program has grown from 10 part-time classrooms serving only 4-year-olds to 100 classrooms serving 3- and 4-year-olds for a full day, Sperlazza says. The school district directly operates four of eight such programs and has partnered with four outside providers to increase capacity. Under state rules, no preschool class can exceed 15 children.
Every 4-year-old who enrolls is guaranteed a space; most 3-year-olds are also accommodated. This school year, the district had a very small waiting list of 3-year-olds.
"We want to serve everyone, and if we can get them all at 3, it's even better," Sperlazza says.
A majority of the city's preschoolers are Hispanic, although they come from a diverse array of backgrounds. Children from the Dominican Republic or of Dominican descent are the largest slice of the population, followed by students of Mexican and Puerto Rican origin or descent.
More than half start preschool with little or no English oral skills. Every classroom has either a bilingual lead teacher or an assistant teacher who can speak Spanish. The district also is offering dual-language instruction in a growing number of its preschool classrooms.
All preschool teachers in Perth Amboy's programs--even those who work for the providers that partner with the district--hold bachelor's degrees and certificates in early-childhood education, as required by the state for all the Abbott school districts. Paraeducators must have at least 60 hours of college credits as well. Master teachers employed by the district work closely with the private centers to ensure the state's standards are met.
Strict rules govern how much time should be devoted to play during a day: 210 minutes, also state-mandated. The preschools all use Creative Curriculum, a commercial program that organizes the preschool classroom and its activities around a unit of study that stretches across multiple weeks.
At the Acelero Head Start Center here, a classroom of 4-year-olds has been learning about music. The teacher and children have created an elaborate play area with a "sound booth" they made out of a cardboard box where they can "record" themselves singing; the area has a toy drum kit and guitar, other instruments, and a microphone fashioned from a cardboard toilet paper roll and aluminum foil.
In a neighboring classroom of 3-year-olds, children learning about dough created a bakery assembly line and ovens made of cardboard and shoeboxes where they can pretend to bake bread or make pizza. Their unit of study included a visit to a local bakery and a project they worked on to create a photo album that documented their field trip.
"We want it to go deep with our kids," Sperlazza says of lessons the center provides.
In an ongoing study of the longitudinal effects of New Jersey's public preschool expansion in the Abbott districts, researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research concluded in a 2009 report (the most recent) that children who participated in the program were less likely to be retained in the early grades.
Looking at children who were in 2nd grade in 2008, the researchers found that grade repetition in kindergarten and 1st grade was 10.7 percent for children who had not attended prekindergarten, 7.2 percent for those who had attended for one year, and 5.3 percent for those who had attended for two years.
The researchers also found positive effects of preschool on children's oral-language skills, early literacy, and mathematics skills in the early grades.
Barnett, who is one of the study's authors, says the effects of preschool show up in later grades, too.
"These programs in New Jersey that have near-universal participation rates beginning at age 3 see children, including Latinos, scoring near the state averages in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades," he says. "And the state average in New Jersey is a very high bar."
Perth Amboy's early-childhood program also provides education and outreach services to parents.
Iris Martinez-Campbell heads that effort for the school system.
"We educate these parents on the importance of things like routines for their children, such as putting them to bed at an early time and the same time every night," Martinez-Campbell says. "From there, we educate them on the importance of talking to their children and reading to them. We loan them books if they don't have any in the home. The goal is to build habits in these families that will extend into the school years."
At Robert N. Wilentz Elementary, a K-4 school that enrolls many of Perth Amboy's preschool graduates, kindergarten teacher Diana Franco sees the effects of preschool for her pupils from the first day of school.
"I have to spend very little time getting them acclimated to being in a classroom," she says. "They know how to listen to a teacher, how to work well with others, and can go with the flow of my classroom almost from the beginning. It's great because we can start learning right away."
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