In California, the state with the largest population of Hispanic students in the country, the achievement gap starts early—long before children enter school.
Hispanic children are much less likely to enroll in preschool than white or black children, and begin kindergarten more than half a year behind their white counterparts. First-generation immigrant students, many who speak only Spanish, start out more than a year behind.
One way to combat this problem, educators argue, is enrolling more Hispanic children in preschool, where they can learn to count, say the alphabet and practice the other pre-reading and math skills they will need later on.
But is simply expanding the number of kids in preschool enough to solve the problem? Increasingly, preschool advocates are saying no. California, which has increased the budget for preschool in recent years so more children can attend, but where the achievement gap has remained largely stagnant, is a stark example of why not.
Children who go to preschool, says Deborah Kong, a spokesperson for the nonprofit advocacy group, Preschool California, “are less likely to drop out of high school, to be placed in special education, to be held back a grade, and they scored better on reading and math tests.” Yet just expanding preschool access, while important, is not the key to closing the achievement gap, she says, noting that only 13 percent of children enrolled in California preschools are enrolled in “high-quality” programs.
“Historically, California has been one of the leaders in making early education available to children,” said Lynn Karoly, a researcher at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, and co-author of a four-part study of California’s preschool system. “But it’s the quality that is important. Having these early learning experiences, it’s really beneficial when it’s high quality, but not all the programs are delivering.”
Castro Family Childcare is located on a quiet residential street in Whittier, where 65 percent of the population is Hispanic and a fifth are immigrants. The preschool, which serves a couple dozen children, takes up most of the home and the entire backyard of Grace Castro, the program’s owner.
Castro, the child of Hispanic immigrants who grew up in low-income household and had three children before she turned 20, said she became a preschool teacher when she saw the difference it made for her own children.
“I saw we were changing the cycle. They were loving to read,” she said.
Since then she has won awards for her work with children, and was recently recruited to join Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit group funded with money from the state tobacco tax to expand preschool programs in Los Angeles County.
For the past six years, LAUP has grappled with how best to reach the children who fall behind before school even starts. Despite the “universal” in its name, the organization decided to focus – in part because of budget constraints – on providing preschool to the children who seemed most in need of it. In heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, in particular, the organization “went out there and promoted and tried to recruit more people to apply,” says Celia Ayala, LAUP’s CEO.
The preschools funded by LAUP undergo a rigorous screening process which scores them on things like whether the teachers have bachelor’s degrees. Preschools are then labeled using a five-star scale, and only centers with three stars and above are allowed to stay in the LAUP system. Castro’s program has five stars.
The effort to ensure quality has become a mission statewide, and currently a state commission is developing a new quality rating system.
Advocates say this effort will help narrow the gap. But Karoly, the RAND researcher, adds that “it’s too much to expect preschool to be able to completely resolve it.”
Research on preschool from around the country has shown that gains made by children in the early years can often fade out as they move into the elementary grades.
It’s an issue that Ayala acknowledges: “If you’re watching your weight and have a trainer and doing everything right, and then all of sudden your trainer goes away and you’re eating all junk food, consider what’s going to happen to you,” she said.
The junk food Ayala is referring to is the mediocre teaching and curriculum that many children encounter once they arrive in elementary school.
“We need to influence the [elementary] teachers and the schools so the quality is moving up,” Ayala said.