Preschool doors should be open to all
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.
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.
Salud America! says that 28 percent of Latino youth suffer four or more traumatic experiences such as parental domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, criminal justice involvement, child abuse, neglect, poverty/homelessness, or parental death.
It's difficult to write about such harrowing statistics. They reinforce the negative stereotypes that people, especially educators, have about Latino children, feeding the sense that these kids are beyond hope, while ignoring that not all Hispanic kids are disadvantaged.
But the truth is that even though you don't have to look very far to find Hispanic valedictorians, and successful Latino business owners, brain surgeons and astronauts, a great deal of Hispanic children are in crisis. The bright side is that more widely available preschool for Latino kids can help close academic gaps before they become a life sentence of low achievement.
Universal preschool is not a magic bullet for all that ails public schools or low-income families. But it can be a much-needed intervention for the most vulnerable of Hispanic students, who are expected to make up about a third of all public-school students by the year 2026.
As of now, only 14 cents of every public education dollar are spent on early childhood education. This gives the edge to parents and families who can afford to put their kids in high-quality, unsubsidized preschool programs, while leaving the needy even further behind.
The low funding represents a lack of foresight and an ignorance of well-established research showing that the prekindergarten years are the most important, developmentally, for all children.
But ultimately, any money dedicated to preventing Hispanic infants from falling two years behind their peers before kindergarten even starts is peanuts compared to the costs of remedial education, social welfare programs and incarceration.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group