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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

Last month, the ambassadors did a presentation for all 120 Logan Square parent mentors, and they are leading workshops at community centers run by the neighborhood association.

One ambassador, Aleida Arzeta, said at a recent meeting that her sister-in-law “was basically doing nothing” at home with her three kids. “I am constantly on top of her now,” she said. Another, Beatriz Morales, has started approaching parents with little ones at the laundromat to ask about the activities they do together and whether they are enrolled in preschool.

Laura Barrios, a 31-year-old mother of three, was petrified to speak as a panelist at a breakfast the neighborhood association organized for Illinois legislators, particularly remembering her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. “When I stood up, it was like a feeling you can’t explain,” she told the other ambassadors later. “Emotions, just a lot.” Barrios, who is now documented, dreams of becoming a teacher and hoped to participate in the community college program, but she instead took a job last month as an aide to the elderly to help support her family.

Gomez-Feliciano reminds the ambassadors that parents need to understand why it’s worth the hassle of getting their children to and from a pre-kindergarten program, particularly a half-day one, in the cold of a Chicago winter. (Some pre-kindergarten programs in Logan Square have waiting lists, but others have seats sitting empty. Preschool centers in the area offer full-day programs, but those in Chicago Public Schools are half-day.) When children have not attended preschool, kindergarten teachers must often spend months on their socialization skills, distracting from academics.

Ideally, pre-kindergarten is the last stop on an early learning trajectory that begins when a child is born, or even earlier. A famous study in the 1990s found that a child living in poverty hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a child with well-off parents. This creates a gap in literacy preparation with lifelong implications and is why parents are urged to speak to children in their native language: They use more words that way.

For parents who did not have a lot of formal schooling, teaching their children often seems like an intimidating and expensive proposition.

Last June, Gomez-Feliciano flew in two trainers from Countdown to Kindergarten, a program run by Boston Public Schools. It had been difficult to find Spanish speakers equipped to lead a session on how to run educational playgroups. The two-day workshop focused on easy and affordable activities, from turning toilet paper rolls into imaginary binoculars to helping children write their addresses on a drawing of a house to observing nature and the outdoors.

Over the summer, the women began putting their new knowledge to use with playgroups convening weekly for two hours outside their neighborhood YMCA. One sticky August Tuesday, the playgroup attracted about 40 parents and children. Some embarked on a “wonder walk” around the building, looking for plastic animal and plant figurines placed strategically in the grass and visiting trees they had “adopted” by placing ribbons on them. Others practiced learning shapes and colors by painting potatoes cut into triangles, squares, circles and rectangles. Babies explored puzzles and books spread out on a blanket while older kids worked in a garden. (The playgroups are designed for children ages 5 and under, but some families could only come if there were activities for older siblings.)

Isidra Mena, 31, there with her 2-year-old nephew and 5-year-old daughter, said the children were starting to recognize real vegetables at home because of what the playgroups were teaching them. Rosa Tafoya, 22, who had been coming all summer with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, said the girls were doing better taking turns with each other, and sometimes they were choosing to draw with chalk on the sidewalk instead of playing video games.

Still, changing habits can be hard.

Over the winter, the ambassadors helped to run a 10-week class for families with children 5 and under called “Abriendo Puertas”, or “Opening Doors,” using a curriculum developed in Los Angeles. Twenty-two mothers originally signed up to participate with their children. In the end, nine graduated. (In a scheduling mixup, one of the two elementary schools where classes were located began offering English as a Second Language at the same time.) The ambassadors helped Gomez-Feliciano to organize a ceremony in December for the graduates’ entire families, featuring a buffet chicken and pasta dinner and giveaways of crayons and books such as Super Catarina y los Super Insectos.

The next morning, the ambassadors sat in desks arranged in a circle at a local middle school, reflecting on the evening’s events. There was frustration over children and parents using cellphones during the ceremony; Abriendo Puertas does not cover appropriate media use, including television watching, and the ambassadors agreed that it should. One of the women, Remedios Martinez, was upset to still hear a mother say her daughter is too young for preschool.

But there was also much to be proud of, from the group’s collaboration and support of each other to the attitudes and behavior they helped inform to the dental care they arranged for a child who needed it. One quiet little boy was starting to talk. The women applauded as they passed around the light blue folder with the 3-year-old girl’s scribbles. Although the girl is still behind developmentally, she was delighting in her newfound discovery of drawing.

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