Margarita is a four-year-old girl living in East Harlem. She speaks Spanish at home with her Mexican-born parents, is obedient, well-behaved and plays well with kids her age, younger and older.
To her mom, Margarita is bien educada. However, because Margarita does not yet speak English, read or count past the number six, her American teachers may not agree that the four-year-old is well educated. While studies have shown that Latino children, like Margarita, have social-emotional skills on par or better than their non-Latino peers upon entering school, the U.S. school system puts more emphasis on the development of academic and language skills, such as literacy and math, said Gigliana Melzi, a New York University professor, who met Margarita while conducting research on preschool-aged Latino children and their families.
So what can be done to ensure students like Margarita will succeed in school? Melzi posed this question to a group of journalists at EWA’s third annual Spanish-language media convening earlier this month. The answer, she said, is to make certain students like Margarita have access to a quality preschool education.
“Various research has shown that those who go to pre-K have better school performance in elementary, in high school, a higher probability of graduating from high school — even a higher income at 40 years old than kids who do not go to pre-K,” Melzi said.
According to the Institute for Early Education Research, public spending on pre-K at both the state and federal levels has increased significantly in the past 15 years, but the percentage of three- and four-year-olds who are enrolled in preschool has changed little since 2000. And while public programs such as Head Start primarily serve children from low-income families, 50 percent of children from the lowest household-income quintile attend public or private pre-K programs, compared with 83 percent of children from families in the top quintile.
The issue of access became a common theme throughout the Aug. 2 discussion at the EWA conference, where Melzi was joined by economist Emma García and U.S. House of Representatives higher education policy advisor Katherine Valle to discuss inequities Latino students face across all levels of education.
Many Latino students — who make up 25 percent of the K-12 student population – attend segregated schools and have limited access to resources such as libraries and extracurricular activities, García said. High school dropout rates, while decreasing, are also higher for Latino students than those of white, black and Asian students.
There’s also the matter of college readiness. Fifty-eight percent of Latino students — and 52 percent of all students — who attend community colleges take remedial education classes intended to better prepare them for college-level courses by reviewing material they should have learned in high school.
“This is another point of inequality, that Latino students are not prepared,” said Valle. “What we’re seeing is that in pre-K, K-12, there are disadvantages. They don’t disappear. They follow students to college.”
Another inequity Valle pointed out is that Latino students are more likely to attend community colleges, which receive less funding. A 2014 Center for American Progress report showed that these schools have seen decreases in funding since the Great Recession, despite a 20 percent increase in enrollment during that time, leading to increased tuition costs.
Students often see community college as the more affordable option, but many four-year universities give scholarships to incoming students with high GPAs that significantly reduce the costs of tuition and could make the school less expensive than a community college, said Valle. There’s also the federal Pell Grant for low-income students and other federal financial aid that’s available on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Many people in our community don’t know that these resources exist,” Valle said.
Also, there’s a common misconception that college students are graduating with $100,000 in debt, ”that there are all of these people that can’t buy houses, can’t buy cars,” Valle said — a myth that could prevent Latinos from pursuing college degrees. According to the Institute for College Access & Success, student borrowers owe an average of $28,950.
Another common myth the panelists discussed was the belief that immigrant Latino families don’t know how to support their children because they are poor and don’t speak English. Research contradicts this, Melzi said. “Latino families have come here to give their children a better life, and they know that education is the way for socioeconomic mobility.”
García also noted that people often discuss Latino education in the context of immigration — a “crucial” and “fundamental issue,” but a separate one.