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Expanding Early Education for Latino Children Imperative, Group Says

It's a known fact that providing kids with high-quality early learning is likely to increase their success in school, work and life. It's also a known fact that Latino children are less likely than their peers in other racial and ethnic groups to participate in those early-childhood programs that prepare kids for school and that the lack of exposure can impact their later academic success.

In 2010, just 56 percent of Latino children ages 3 to 5 were enrolled in preschool, compared to 65 percent of white children and 70 percent of Asian children of the same age, according to Erika Beltrán, senior policy analyst for the Education and Children's Policy Project of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group.

And yet federal statistics project Latinos will comprise 18 percent of the workforce by 2018, meaning today's adolescents and teens will be "the workers who drive our economic engine" and they won't be prepared to do so "even though we know what it takes: a quality early-education experience," according to Liany Elba Arroyo, the project's associate director.

With that demographic imperative, then, what needs to happen to expand access to Latino children and to improve the quality of programming to meet the needs of these students, many of whom are English-language learners?

By fostering family engagement, offering quality programs that offer strategies and assess the language development needs of Latino children, and providing effective professional development that trains teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse
children and families, Beltrán said yesterday during a briefing with Arroyo and other experts to discuss NCLR's new research on the impact of high-quality early learning for Latino children and what elected officials can do to help improve students' chances for future success.

Achieving those goals for Latino children, as well as all kids who would benefit from quality early learning programs, requires commitment from political leaders and an understanding that investing in quality early childhood development is critical even in today's difficult financial climate, said experts who participated in the briefing.

"Without an effective early-childhood development strategy, America has a deficit strategy, not a growth strategy," noted Rich Neimand, president and creative director of Neimand Collaborative, who discussed the importance of closing the early learning gap as well as research by the firm's client, Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman.

While investment in quality programming is important, so is understanding why more Hispanic families aren't enrolling their kids in quality day care or preschool and what can be done to improve their participation.

Beltrán noted that there are a couple of reasons, including a shortage of facilities in high-poverty and minority communities. "Even if people wanted to enroll their child, they simply don't have facilities in their community," she said.

Also, families may not be able to afford to enroll their kids and often are confused about legal requirements for enrollment in child care or preschool, she said. The uncertainty "definitely breeds fear and confusion in Hispanic communities," she said.

Some communities have made boosting Latino enrollment in preschool a top priority, and are seeing major results both in readiness for kindergarten and achievement results in later grades.

Family engagement is a big piece of the solution, Beltrán said, as well as promoting the hiring and training of "culturally competent" staff who are bilingual and can become "real partners" with parents.

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