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ABCs of Change For Latino Children

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

The children and parents gathered for story time one recent Saturday morning in the District heard "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" not once but twice. "In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf," the Eric Carle classic began in the first rendition.

"Bajo la luz de la luna, encima de una hoja, habia un huevecillo," it began in the second.

Afterward, children drew caterpillars and butterflies and ate cupcakes. Everyone left with a copy of the book. Among the crowd at the CentroNia family support center were Angie Lemus, 5, and her mother, Sandra Gomez, 19.

"When I was little, no one read books to me," said Gomez, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. "My mother didn't have any kind of education at all, so it was hard for her to read a book even in Spanish." But Gomez has a different routine with Angie. "Every night we read a book," she said. "Now it's normal."

That is exactly the kind of shift at home that educators seek to address a major academic challenge: Latino children nationwide tend to start kindergarten knowing less about letters and numbers compared with their non-Hispanic white peers. Many never catch up. Improving early childhood education is one of the best ways to narrow the achievement gap, educators say, citing such programs as the family book club. But many Latino families face economic, linguistic, educational and even cultural barriers.

"It's partly about parents not understanding the American system," said Eugene E. Garcia, an Arizona State University administrator and chairman of the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics. "Hispanic parents think school is good and education is good. They just don't have the tools they need."

About 40 percent of Latino 3- and 4-year-olds (and 5-year-olds not yet in kindergarten) are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs, compared with about 60 percent of white and African American children, according to the District-based advocacy group Pre-K Now. In addition, a new report from Garcia's task force noted that Hispanic mothers generally read and talk less to their children compared with white parents. Hispanic families also tend to have fewer children's books at home.

Latino education advocates said they are battling a misperception that Hispanic parents are less concerned about teaching young children. Research shows lack of interest isn't the problem. Often Hispanic families don't have affordable preschools in their communities or, because of language barriers, don't know what's available. Many don't know the benefits of telling stories to young children or reading or counting with them. To many recent immigrants and their families, experts say, the U.S. culture of Baby Einstein tapes, museum trips and library story times is unfamiliar.

Targeted programs and increased outreach to Hispanic families can make a difference, a point stressed by Garcia's task force and the National Education Association, a teachers union. The stakes are high because about one of every five children in the United States younger than 8, about 6.8 million in all, was Hispanic in 2000, experts say. The percentage is likely to grow, fueled by immigration and birthrates.

"We talk about the high dropout rates of the Latino population and the achievement gap," said Michael L. Lopez, executive director of the National Center for Latino Child & Family Research in the District. "If we think it's bad now, what happens when the population continues to grow and we don't do anything about it?"

Many community groups, businesses and government agencies are searching for solutions. For instance, CentroNia and Scholastic Inc. have teamed up with book clubs. Scholastic offers free reading material as part of its "Lee y seras" program, which means "Read and you will be." Sesame Workshop officials have begun talking with educators about new ways to reach the Hispanic community, possibly through a Spanish-speaking Muppet or new television programming.

At the Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Center in Silver Spring -- one of 24 such centers in Maryland -- bilingual workers host educational play groups for Spanish-speaking families and help them find quality child care. At family literacy learning parties, children are cared for at the center while parents learn simple ways to teach at home through songs, stories and other activities.

Many educators say enrolling Hispanic children in quality preschools is the best way to ensure they start kindergarten ready to learn. But assisting parents in becoming better teachers also helps.

U.S. Department of Education data on the learning patterns of 12,000 children across the country, Lopez said, suggest some of the key factors linked to how well 9-month-old children learn to speak and develop motor skills. The amount of time parents spent reading and telling stories to their children and interacting with them mattered more, Lopez said, than the education level or income of the adults.

Aleyda Grijalva, 32, who cares for five children in her Herndon home, has begun doing more of those things. She was among 24 women who recently took English classes and learned about teaching young children in a program run by Fairfax Futures, a nonprofit group working to improve early childhood education.

These days, the children in her care, age 3 and younger, spend more time coloring and counting cups of rice they scoop from a plastic jug. They play with magnets shaped like letters and easily can pluck "Two Crazy Pigs" or "The Puppy Book" from a shelf that's just their height.

"I used to think they were just playing, but I never knew exactly what they were learning," Grijalva said. "It's really important that they learn and discover."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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