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Politics

Preschool doors should be open to all

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- My mom likes to tell the story of my first day of kindergarten: When we arrived, she had to restrain me from running off to join the crowd of kids pouring through the front door.

She always caps her story with: "I couldn't stop crying and you didn't even want to say goodbye to me because you were in such a hurry to get into school."

I was so eager, in fact, that even before kindergarten, I vividly recall driving by the nursery school down the street, hungering to be let into what I was convinced was a magical wonderland of toys and stories a la "The Electric Company."

But when I asked my parents why I couldn't go to preschool, they looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. It wasn't for us -- I had family at home to take care of me. That's just how it was done way back then in the Hispanic community; the babies stayed home with mom or grandma until formal schooling started.

To this day, Hispanic kids continue to be underrepresented in preschools. There are lots of reasons, not the least of which are cultural and language-related. But the biggest and least surmountable is that there simply aren't enough spots in affordable, high-quality preschool centers to go around.

The shortage is so acute for Latino kids that, according to Salud America!, a national Latino advocacy organization focusing on families, only 40 percent of Hispanic kids attend preschool, compared to 53 percent of white kids.

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The effects of Latinos being more likely to live in child care deserts, and therefore less likely to attend preschool, are chilling because they are coupled with multiple factors that make for a shockingly rough start in life.

According to a new report from Salud America!, "The State of Latino Early Childhood Development," Hispanic kids begin life with birth weights and developmental capacities that are similar to those of white children. But by 24 months, their capacities to reason, remember tasks, communicate verbally and identify letters, numbers, and shapes lessen significantly compared to white children. And these deficits "appear even more prevalent in Mexican-American children than in other nationality subgroups."

The authors cite the usual suspects: lower education levels among Hispanic parents, larger family sizes in which individual children get a smaller slice of available attention, unemployment or underemployment, and the higher incidence of depression among Hispanic mothers. These, combined with the cultural assumptions that teachers are the only experts suited to teach kids literacy and numeracy skills, and low or no English skills create a perfect storm for Hispanic kids' underperformance when they start kindergarten.

And those, sadly, are the best-case scenarios -- the statistics get even more dire when you factor in other hardships, many of which are quite prevalent.

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