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Latino Educators Stress Making Early Childhood Education A Priority

by Jessica Montoya Coggins /

CHICAGO, IL -- Recently a group of leaders, researchers and activists arrived at Chicago’s Erikson Institute to attend an Early Learning Symposium, with the aim of boosting Latino educational outcomes. Organized by The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH), “Fulfilling America’s Future: Research, Practice & Policy Advancing Early Childhood Education for Hispanics” continued the ongoing national conversation about Latinos and education, including the importance of family engagement and increasing STEM.

This two-day summit took place just a few months before the Initiative celebrates its 25th Anniversary. Hispanics are playing a pivotal role in the transformation of American education. Latinos represent almost 1 out of 4 Pre-K through 12 public school students. Though there has been significant progress in early education since the Initiative was founded in 1990 there is still a lot to accomplish. Currently only 45.4% of 3 and 4-year old Latinos are enrolled in early learning programs.

Executive Director for the WHIEEH Alejandra Ceja cited the importance of the city of Chicago as a leader and pioneer in the country for early education. Sylvia Acevedo, the Chair of the Subcommittee for the President’s Advisory Commission for the WHIEEH, went so far as to call Chicago “the birthplace of the early learning field.”

Last year the city of Chicago announced that 2,620 public school children would have access to pre-K education over the next four years. In January the city was also awarded $600 million for early childhood education programming over the next five years. That Head Start funding, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, was renewed on the strength of Chicago’s robust programs. Cities like Los Angeles and New York were asked to re-compete for those funds. Indeed, Chicago is considered a groundbreaking place where programs like home visiting are really changing the education landscape.

Illinois as a state has gone through a major growth in its Latino population. According to the Latino Policy Forum, in the state of Illinois, 62 counties have experienced greater than 100% growth in English-language learning students from 2005 to 2012. In 2010 Illinois became the first state to require bilingual preschool programs.

Diana Raunus, the First Lady of the State of Illinois and the President of the Ounce of Prevention Fund spoke at the Symposium to attendees about her findings in the state concerning dual language learning. “The research continues to show us that dual language learners from an early age are developing different brains.”

Dr. Libby Doggett, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning at the Department of Education also cited bilingualism as an early learning advantage. In order for the United States to remain globally competitive, it’s essential to strive for more dual language programs in early education. Doggett even spoke about her own background growing up in El Paso as giving her an early vantage at multi-culturalism.

Linda Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development at the Department of Health and Human Services talked about the additional benefits to dual language, for both students and families. When a child hears multiple languages at a young age, they can develop reasoning skills even before they begin speaking. Smith, who often works closely with Doggett on several issues, pledged to the audience that a joint statement about dual language learning could be expected soon from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Many speakers did cite certain obstacles to dual language learning, including the notion that speaking Spanish is a “stigma” for many families. When parents are afraid to even speak to their young children in Spanish because they know little English, it’s tremendously detrimental. Smith believes that with community engagement, families can learn that speaking to children in any language is critical. “[Speaking Spanish] isn’t a deficit, it’s a strength that we need to build on in this country,” she said.

Dr. Bianca Enriquez, the Director of the Office of Head Start at the Health and Human Services acknowledged that new regulations for Head Start will include requirements for meeting the needs of dual language learners. Head Start has already made inroads with Hispanics, and right now 27.9% of all the children they serve are Latino.

For Ceja, the Summit was an ideal way to bring together leaders in early education, and to engage in a “critical conversation” about the best ways to integrate the Hispanic community into the early education discussion. As Ceja looks ahead to September when the Initiative officially celebrates its 25th anniversary, she hopes that early education becomes the “baseline issue” for this topic. “If we want to talk about college completion then we need to talk about investing in early childhood education to build that pipeline.”