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Fewer Latinos attend preschool

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Esther Cepeda
April 11, 2011
— In about two decades, we’ll look at whether today’s dismal Latino high school graduation rates improved after years of efforts to increase this group’s academic success. If they haven’t, we can single out 2005 to 2009—the years that the percentage of Latino children attending preschool dropped after a steady 25-year increase—as a possible culprit.

According to data just released by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the share of Latino 4-year-olds attending preschool fell nationwide from 53 percent to 48 percent between 2005 and 2009, a period that included the onset and the immediate aftereffects of the Great Recession.


The researchers speculated about the causes. A perennially cited possibility for low preschool attendance is the belief that immigrant parents fear contact with “formal institutions.” Considering the increasingly harsh tone of the immigration debate, it would be unrealistic to deny that such concerns exist. But because 63 percent of the Hispanic population is U.S.-born, I think that’s the least likely reason.


Also always cited is the lack of the Hispanic community’s familiarity with the pervasiveness, availability and importance of the extra schooling. Many Latino families live with three generations under one roof, and though only 37 percent of the entire Hispanic population is foreign-born, it represents a portion of potentially influential family members who never considered it standard operating procedure to send kids to preschool.


That might be why seeing preschool as a common and academically important experience for young children has not reached the critical mass in Latino families as it has for the roughly 70 percent of white and African-American 4-year-olds who routinely attend preschool before entering kindergarten.


The biggest issue, however, is that joblessness rose from 6.3 percent to 10.6 percent between 2005 and 2009 for Latina women 20 and older, and even higher for less-educated Latinas. Coupled with that, the authors say, are budget reductions in state and federal aid for preschool programs serving low-income communities. It makes sense that steady gains in Latino preschool attendance were rocked by job losses and that enrollments fell not only because programs—or the transportation to them—became unaffordable for particular families but also because programs ceased to exist when funding ran out.


Unfortunately, the issue of how few Latino children attend preschool has flown so far under the radar that it hasn’t been recognized by most people as the five-alarm emergency that it really is. It deserves serious consideration now more than ever because kids who represent almost one in every four children in the U.S. population are increasingly starting off on the wrong foot.


That’s why in order to put actual energy behind reversing this decline, the problem must be seen as one that affects all children in all classrooms, rather than as just another Hispanic issue.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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