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Parenting Program Aims to Help Latinos Close Early-Learning Gaps

Albuquerque, N.M.

Recent studies are finding that immigrant Latino families provide some of the best starts for young children, even when those families face disadvantages because of poverty.

They are more often than not two-parent households, more likely to have mothers who don't experience mental health issues, and tend to provide a strong foundation for social-emotional learning in their young children, which is a well-documented set of skills necessary for success in school.

But there are still significant gaps in readiness between Latino children and their white and Asian-American peers before they enter school, especially when it comes to literacy. A 5-year-old program is taking aim at eliminating those gaps by focusing on parenting practices for children from birth to age 5.

Called "Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors," the program, while still relatively new, is showing improved outcomes for the parents around the country who have participated. A new research brief from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the program raises Latino parents' knowledge about early-literacy skills, social-emotional development, and health.

The Berkeley team drew its conclusions based on the results of survey questions that were answered by more than 600 parents who took part in 35 Abriendo Puertas programs across six different states. Eighty-six percent of the surveyed parents are immigrants and most of them are from Mexico. Two-thirds reported that they were married. Twenty-eight percent said they had completed grade school, 23 percent said they attended some high school, and 27 percent said they had earned a high school diploma, received a GED, or had completed some college coursework. Most of them reported having two children.

Before taking part in the 10-session Abriendo Puertas program, participants answered survey questions about early learning and development, language and literacy, school preparation, health and wellness, parenting knowledge, and their own confidence in their skills for raising children. They answered the same questions again after completing the program. The researchers found that, across all categories, the parents had gained substantial knowledge and confidence in their skills as parents and as their children's first teachers after completing the training.

One question in the literacy area was how often parents take their children to the library. Prior to participating in Abriendo Puertas, 30 percent said they had never been to the library with their child. After the program, fewer than 2 percent of parents reported this. There was also a 36 percentage-point uptick in the number of parents who reported taking their kids to the library at least once per week.

The program's effects "were impressive and important," said Margaret Bridges, the UC Berkeley, researcher who led the project.

Here in Albuquerque, the two-year-old Abriendo Puertas program has trained about 150 parents in the southwest quadrant of the city, said Adrian Pedroza, the executive director of the Partnership for Community Action, a nonprofit community organization that secured grant funding from the Kellogg Foundation to bring the program to Albuquerque. To date, the program has targeted the parents of children ages 3 to 5, who attend Even Start early-childhood and family-literacy programs housed in eight public elementary schools.

One of the biggest misunderstandings of early literacy that the Albuquerque program has helped to reveal among the mostly immigrant, Latino families, Pedroza said, is that parents think they shouldn't read to their children in Spanish. They worry that reading in Spanish would somehow harm their children's chances for learning English, he said.

"They will say that they shouldn't read to their child because they don't speak English," said Pedroza, who is an appointee to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. "This program does a lot to help counter those myths about literacy and language and for these parents to see their Spanish language as an asset for their children."

Here, the first wave of parent training was conducted by facilitators who had been prepared by the developers of the Abriendo Puertas curriculum. Since then, however, a cadre of local parent educators who went through the program themselves has taken over most of the training, a model that Pedroza said would be more sustainable over the long run. Another upside to using local parents as trainers, he said, is that they learn to become community leaders and advocates for education and other issues.

Other New Mexico communities are also using Abriendo Puertas, including Las Cruces, south of Albuquerque, and Farmington, Pedroza said. The program, which was developed in Los Angeles, has so far served more than 22,000 families in 31 states and Puerto Rico, according to the research brief. The program has been adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District and is used as a parent engagement model in Head Start centers.

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