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English Language Literacy in Immigrant Parents Is Important for Early Childhood Education, Report Says

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First Posted: Jun 10, 2014 04:35 PM EDT
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Early childhood education is absent from the lives of the neediest, poorest and fastest-growing population, in spite of the wide-spanning expansion of preschool programs meant to address the needs of children across the economic spectrum, particularly disadvantaged youths. (Photo : Getty Image/Shaun Botterill / Staff)

Early childhood education is absent from the lives of the neediest, poorest and fastest-growing populations, in spite of the expansion of preschool programs meant to address the needs of children across the economic spectrum, particularly disadvantaged youths. And more than any others, children in immigrant households are the least likely to enroll their children in federal and state preschool programs, due mainly to language and literacy barriers.

Children from immigrant households make up a quarter of all children under the age of 8. They represent half of the children in California, and more than a third of the children in Texas, New Jersey, New York and Nevada. The parents of these children tend to be low-income and poorly educated; and, as immigrants who are often new to the U.S., they don't necessarily understand how to access or navigate the programs offered.

The language used when describing programs isn't clear, and preschool programs find it difficult to reach out to parents who don't know English and lack basic literacy skills. Consequently, students and parents miss out, failing to gain access to universal preschool.

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Connecticut, which has a 13.5 percent immigrant population, is one of the states that is expanding its early childhood program.

Democratic leaders in the legislature presented a proposal in April for government-funded early childhood education program expansion. The plan allots $200 million over 10 years to offer "high-quality" pre-kindergarten experiences to about 50,000 3- and 4-year-olds in public schools.

The two major sources of revenue that the proposal relies on are $100 million from the sale of bonds to cover capital costs such as classroom renovations, and $100 million from the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund to pay for teacher salaries and other operating expenses. Preschool programs funded by the state must receive accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children within three years of receiving funding, and the child-teacher ratio must be 10 to one or better. The proposition calls for the funding of 4,000 preschool slots to be filled by the state's neediest children by 2019.

"Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs: Addressing Barriers of Literacy, Culture, and Systems Knowledge," a report written by Maki Park and Margie McHugh for the Migration Policy Institute, indicates that the young children of immigrants aren't accessing pre-K. Also, it notes the importance of establishing a meaningful two-way communication between families and government programs, seeing it as a priority if the expansion efforts are meant to succeed.

The report indicated that programs face difficulties attempting to engage immigrant and refugee parents who require support in overcoming language and literacy barriers. Early childhood programs such as Head Start rely on the support of parents, but without adult literacy, the effectiveness of the early childhood programs decreases.

"The role of parents in supporting their young children's early cognitive and socioemotional development is undisputed, as is their role as gatekeepers for their children's participation in programs designed to support early learning and reduce gaps in school readiness among those at risk for poor educational outcomes," said McHugh. "The Preschool for All initative being advanced by President Obama and congressional leaders can be leveraged to include comprehensive and purposeful parent engagement strategies for low-literate and LEP parents — both native-born and foreign-born — as part of state expansion of universal pre-K programs. Such strategies would provide a bridge between ECEC parent-focused programs and those of K-12 schools."

Aligning adult education and preschool programs is the key to engaging immigrant parents and empowering their children. Adult education tends to focus solely on higher education, and early education programs lack partners at local level. The education of parent and child will benefit the entire family. As Latino parents increase their literacy in Spanish and English, it trickles down to their children. Functional literacy and English proficiency in immigrant parents can feed a child's early cognitive and socioemotional development and close the gap for kindergarten readiness between immigrant children and their native peers.

Basic literacy, adult ESL, cultural and systems knowledge in the lives of immigrant parents — as it relates to parenting, home-school relationships, responsibility for learning outcomes, and workforce development — and increased economic stability can be crucial for future academic success in children.

And that will require government programs to rework preschool and adult education policies to better reach immigrant families.

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