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Latina Moms Team Up to Teach Chicago’s Youngest

Lorena Arcos (left) and Jessica Castro (right), mothers trained by Chicago's Logan Square Neighborhood Association to advocate for early learning in their community, work with a boy from the neighborhood on his letters during an educational playgroup they helped organize. Kim Palmer / The Hechinger Report

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 leading organized playgroups as well as 10-week classes where parents and children learn simultaneously. That’s where the scribbles were created. They also assisted in throwing a mass “birthday party” for 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.

Eight women –– seven Mexican and one Colombian –– are leading organized playgroups as well as 10-week classes where parents and children learn simultaneously.

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 Univision to promote 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 one-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.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association has been operating since 1962. In recent years, the group has gained attention for training parents to be mentors in their children’s elementary schools. 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 across 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 association expanded its efforts to address the critical issue of children’s learning at the beginning of life. Parents who had already been elementary mentors could 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, and yet their work illustrates some of the obstacles to changing cultural patterns.

Most of the ambassadors are stay-at-home mothers, but some of the original trainees had to leave the program because they needed paying jobs. Gomez-Feliciano hopes to eventually be able to afford to pay the women a sustainable wage. She is trying to make it logistically easier for those interested in becoming preschool teachers, bringing community college classes to the neighborhood.

Gomez-Feliciano 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.

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. “When I stood up, it was like a feeling you can’t explain,” she told the other ambassadors later.

Gomez-Feliciano 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.

Last June, Gomez-Feliciano flew in two trainers from Boston to lead a session on educational playgroups. The two-day workshop focused on easy and affordable activities like turning toilet paper rolls into imaginary binoculars.

Over the summer, the women put the knowledge to use with playgroups convening weekly outside their local YMCA. One sticky August Tuesday, the playgroup attracted about 40 parents and children. Some embarked on a “wonder walk” around the building, looking for figurines placed in the grass. Others practiced learning shapes and colors by painting potatoes. Babies explored puzzles and books on a blanket.

Rosa Tafoya, 22, who had been coming all summer with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, said the girls were sometimes choosing to draw with chalk on the sidewalk instead of playing video games.

Still, change 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,” a curriculum developed in Los Angeles. Twenty-two mothers originally signed up. In the end, nine graduated.

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.

The morning after a graduation ceremony they helped organize, the ambassadors gathered to reflect on the event. There was frustration over children and parents using cellphones during the ceremony. 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 support of each other to the attitudes they helped inform. 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.

The women are planning a new session of Abriendo Puertas to begin in March. This time, a consultant who coaches them will sit in the back of the parents’ classroom observing rather than standing in front along with them. This time, the teaching will be their own.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.