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February 14, 2014 3:08 PM Their Children’s First Teachers: Latino Parents Targeted in Early Education Efforts

By Sara Neufeld

CHICAGO — The pen scribble marks on a light blue folder could have been drawn by a 1-year-old, although the girl who made them was 3. And yet, to a group of women from her neighborhood who admiringly passed the folder around a room, the scribbles represented a victory. Until recently, the girl had never before held a writing utensil, and her mother did not understand the importance of early childhood education. Now, thanks to these women, the mother did.

Most middle class parents don’t need to be told that they are their children’s first teachers, and that the job starts at birth or even earlier. In poor communities, however, that knowledge is not necessarily a given. Latino immigrants particularly tend to trust the public school system to provide their children with the education they need, beginning in kindergarten, according to advocates and studies. Their role is to keep their babies safe, clean, well-fed and loved — an attitude that can lead to children being nurtured but starting school irreparably behind.

Here in Logan Square, a primarily Latino neighborhood in northwest Chicago, a grassroots community organizing effort is helping immigrant mothers to educate their friends, relatives and neighbors about early learning. Eight women — seven Mexican and one Colombian — are now leading organized playgroups as well as 10-week classes where parents and children learn simultaneously in different rooms. That’s where the scribbles were created. They also assisted in throwing a mass “birthday party” for neighborhood children where, amid balloons and face-painting, the real point was to provide parents information about their preschool options.

“It’s an awareness we’re trying to build while linking families to resources,” said Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, a Chicago native who directs early childhood work for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

This month, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a campaign to take the same message to Latino families nationwide. Her new Too Small to Fail initiative, funded by the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, is partnering with the Spanish-language television network Univision to promote the importance of early childhood education, particularly reading, talking and singing to children at home to build foundational literacy skills.

Ann O’Leary, who coordinates Too Small to Fail through the nonprofit Next Generation, said the move was prompted in part by a national study showing that Latino infants and toddlers are half as likely to be read to as their white peers and a third less likely to be sung or have stories told to.

A telephone survey of nearly 100,000 families completed in 2012 found that 26 percent of young Latino children had been read to in the previous week, compared with 41 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of whites. (An analysis of the survey was published by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, a funder of The Hechinger Report.)

Among parents who speak fluent Spanish and are still learning English, a frequent source of confusion is what language to use with their children. Research overwhelmingly shows that the native language is best, a message that will be spread through Univision’s public service announcements and is already starting to get out in Chicago’s Logan Square.

A national survey found that 26 percent of young Latino children had been read to in the previous week, compared with 41 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of whites.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association has been in operation since 1962, advocating on a host of issues for residents of a longtime haven for immigrants. In recent years, the group has gained attention for a program training parents to be mentors in their children’s elementary school classrooms. That program, profiled in 2012 by The Hechinger Report and NBC News, now has 120 participants placed in Logan Square public schools each year, and the model is being replicated with 600 parents statewide in Illinois.

A year and a half ago, thanks to a $600,000, three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (also a Hechinger funder), the neighborhood association expanded its organizing efforts to address the critical issue of children’s learning in the first years of life. Parents who had already participated in the elementary mentoring program were eligible to apply for more extensive training to become “early childhood ambassadors.”

About 20 mothers have since undergone early childhood training, and eight now hold the title of ambassador and will receive a $950 stipend this semester. In a short time, they have started to create a buzz about early childhood education in their community, and yet their work illustrates some of the obstacles inherent in trying to change cultural patterns.

As a group, the ambassadors have had limited education themselves; none has attended college. Most are stay-at-home mothers, but some of the original trainees had to leave the program because they needed paying jobs.

Gomez-Feliciano, who worked for a decade in childhood obesity prevention before turning her efforts to early learning, hopes to eventually be able to afford to pay the women a sustainable wage. She is also trying to make it logistically easier for those interested in becoming preschool teachers to pursue that opportunity, arranging for community college classes to be offered in the neighborhood.

She often pushes the ambassadors to do new things: speaking in public, approaching people they don’t know and confronting those they do know on behalf of young children. This provokes fear but also inspires confidence.

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