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.
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